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Why is white asparagus in America usually so bad?

Produce stall, Stockholm

Produce stall, Stockholm

This is my last post with a Swedish theme, I promise. But as I go back to catching up on Atlanta restaurant news and stuffing my face, I keep thinking about the great (m0stly German) white asparagus that is currently in season in Northern Europe.

We ate it steamed, pickled, blended into soup, every way we could.

White and green asparagus are the same species. The only difference is that the white undergoes etiolation — i.e., it is grown in the absence of light. Traditionally, this is done by mounding dirt around the spears. It makes me think of the chive patch that had wintered over in my garden and came back, white as snow, under a pile of pine straw.

The white asparagus in Europe doesn’t have the buttery flavor of green asparagus, but it is juicy, snappy and crisp, and it has a mild flavor that I could imagine associating intimately with early spring in my mind if only I knew it better.

Alas, the few times I’ve purchased white asparagus here I find that it is bitter and unpleasant. What gives? Why don’t we Americans cotton to this great vegetable?

9 comments Add your comment

Michael Scharff

May 7th, 2010
3:10 pm

I purchased some a few weeks ago from my local Kroger in Martinez, GA (just outside of Augusta), and the flavor was just as you described it from the specimens you sampled in Europe. Maybe I got lucky to get a good batch.


May 7th, 2010
4:01 pm

I kept seeing ’spargle’ on the menu in Berlin restaurants. I asked a waitress whose English, while much better than my German, was far from perfect, what ’spargle’ meant. “AH Spahr AH Juice” she replied. After one bite of the lily white stalks, I ordered it from every menu!!

ramona clef

May 7th, 2010
5:22 pm

I’ve only bought white asparagus a few times because it is costly, but I found that it is much better peeled than unpeeled. I never bother to peel the green kind.


May 7th, 2010
10:10 pm

Ate spargle every which way in Germany the last two weeks in May a year ago – your post brings back yummy memories.

[...] View full post on Food and More with John Kessler [...]


May 10th, 2010
5:46 pm


My family grows white asparagus in Illinois. As far as we know, we are one of the only commercial producers in the US other than California. Most of what can be bought in the US comes from Peru, so most likely you are not getting a fresh product. We have 7000 feet of rows, and can cut over 200 pounds daily in good weather.
I have been considering setting up a website if there is enough interest in the subject. Seems like all that can be found online is recipes, not much about the actual growing process. Feedback would be appreciated.


May 10th, 2010
9:05 pm

We’re one of the importers and distributors of fresh white asparagus from Peru. It’s all in how you cook it. We make sure that it is fresh when it leaves our dock! Glad someone had a good experience.


May 11th, 2010
7:35 pm

I know I have read in Saveur that it is essential to get white asparagus almost right out of the ground. Evidently, peeling is also very important.

I’ve never had decent white asparagus and I just don’t buy it anymore. If, however, I find myself in Germany in the spring, I’ll give it another try.

Jane Garvey

May 12th, 2010
6:21 pm

White asparagus–spargle–oh boy. And now’s the season, too, in Germany. Was on a trip a few years ago with other writers at this time of year, and wondered why we didn’t see much of it. Later learned that the organizers had told the restaurateurs, “Don’t give them so much white asparagus!” I could NOT believe it. You go all that way for the white asparagus of your life, and they thought it was too much for us. My grandfather (German) used to grow it in Pennsylvania. It was the treat of the patch, and was not bitter. And yes, you do have to peel it. I’ve also had good white asparagus in Spain.