For people who love food, spring promises great things.
After months of eating preserved foods and produce flown in from South America,
fresh, local food finally reappears. Soon, fresh fruits and vegetables from the
state and even our county will be available at both grocery stores and the Dane
County Farmers’ Market, which returns to Capitol Square April 19.

One of the first vegetables to poke out of the springtime
soil is asparagus. Not only are dishes made with this vegetable delicious, but they
are also a prelude to several months filled with cookouts, baseball and a
rainbow of locally-grown edible plants.

Although there is some asparagus production in Wisconsin,
most of the U.S. crop is grown in California, Washington and Michigan. Sadly,
for those of us who shop exclusively at grocery stores, most asparagus we eat
comes from these three states.

From an ecological standpoint, however, even out-of-state
produce is preferable to vegetables grown in other countries. Because the
product has to travel shorter distances, vendors use less fossil fuel in
transporting it.

Wherever it comes from, asparagus is a remarkable vegetable many
people have prized as both delicious and healthful.

In fact, some feel asparagus is an aphrodisiac. Historians
argue this reputation stems from the vegetable’s resemblance to a certain part
of the male anatomy. Considering the shape and size of most stalks of
asparagus, Seriously Hungry officially feels sorry for these historians.

One alternative explanation for asparagus’s alleged
aphrodisiac effects stems from ancient societies’ poor nutrition. Because
people living in these civilizations had less access to nutritious fruits and
vegetables, eating them may have given them the energy for romantic pursuits.
The modern perception of asparagus as an aphrodisiac may simply be due to
historic inertia.

A more scientifically supported benefit of asparagus is its
cleansing nature. Many people, from the ancient Greeks to modern believers in
holistic medicine, have prized asparagus for its purifying effects. This
reputation probably derives from the fact that the vegetable is a natural
diuretic; its combination of high potassium and low sodium levels and its amino
acid profile foster urine production.

However, not everyone is a fan of asparagus’s diuretic effects.
Many complain an unpleasant urinary odor follows their pleasant dining

Surprisingly, there is a good deal of debate over just what
causes this putrid pee. Most scientists agree the culprit is methylmercaptan, a
metabolite of an amino acid in asparagus. Others argue that other metabolites
or even a combination of them are responsible, but there is broad agreement
that at least one of the amino acids in the plant is fundamentally responsible.

Another point of agreement about the great liquid waste
stench controversy is that everybody who eats the vegetable has smelly urine.
Individuals who vehemently deny this are not lying outright, however; their
urine probably indeed does not smell to them.

There is actually a large percentage of the population physically
unable to smell the chemicals that sully the air of the asparagus-eater’s
bathroom. Fortunately for those of us who can detect the odor, modern
deodorizing technology has effectively negated this excuse for not eating

Although the American varieties of this tasty harbinger of
stink are generally green, it comes in a wide variety of colors. Europeans, for
example, tend to prefer white asparagus, in spite of the fact that it is less
nutritious than its green cousin.

This odd color variation comes not from a different plant
but as a result of growing techniques. By piling dirt on top of emerging
asparagus buds, farmers can shield their crops from sunlight and produce the
white stalks European diners demand. Purple and pink asparagus, on the other
hand, result from a species variation.

In light of the vegetable’s status as the first fresh
produce of the spring harvest, it is unsurprising that people have speculated
at its aphrodisiac effects, marveled at its cleansing power and admired its
variety of colors. Whatever you feel about asparagus, eating it is a great way
to celebrate the arrival of spring. Just make sure to leave the fan on.


Jason Engelhart is a senior majoring in economics and
history. Offended historians and others may direct their hate mail and
questions to [email protected]