Foodie Berlin

Erotica and White Asparagus Season

Asparagus season makes me uneasy. This is a problem living in Germany, because Spargelzeit* is unavoidable. The alien fern crops up in every menu for two months in the spring. Wiener Schnizel, with Spargel. Cheesecake, with Spargel. Soup of Spargel. There’s even asparagus ice cream. I pity those allergic. But my condition is psycho-sexual.

Perhaps it has something to do with their slender tips, the tapering from the stalks, the perfumed urine, or the fact that the etymology of the word in Greek is ‘young drive’ or ‘young shoot’. The form is undeniably penile, but not quite human. Cats have barbed members. Imagine the asparagus springing open, catching you unaware, and not letting go until it has had its feline way with you. But I am not convinced that my anxiety is cross-species. I know from my taxonomy that asparagus is not from the Kingdom Animalia. It is the vegetable mimicry of the male package.

Vertumnus is the Roman god of plant growth, and so the god of asparagus. A tricky fellow, he seduced Pomona in the guise of an old woman. Ovid describes the salacious, shapeshifting-geriatric-lesbian, entrapment in his Metamorphoses. I wonder how the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) felt about being depicted as Vertumnus. The Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, known for his vegetative portraits, where human figures are composed entirely of pieces of fruit, blossoms, gourds and bramble, thought the comparison appropriate… perhaps because Rudolf was notoriously bisexual and promiscuous. In fact, many portraits of the emperor are exceedingly erotic. Recently, a joint effort of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie brought Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf II as Vertumnus to the German capital as part of an exhibit called ‘Renaissance Faces’. Tactfully, Arcimboldo does not portray the viridian monarch below the midriff, but we can guess what vegetable he’d use to depict the contents of the royal codpiece.

In Germany, it’s not green asparagus, popular in North America, which is on the menus from mid April to the 24th of June every year. The 118 000 tons of asparagus produced is for the most part white, because it is grown in the dark, and requires peeling before eating. So much asparagus has a cult following. I have seen restaurants, in the traditionally queer neighbourhood of Schoeneberg, serve up what they self-deridingly call ‘gay food’ in honour of Spargelzeit. A plate of Beetlizer Spargel, traditionally with young potatoes and hollandaise sauce, is suggestively arranged with a happy ending. Take a fork and knife to this culinary presentation and ask yourself whether you emerge psychologically unscathed. Perhaps I worry about how the pallid asparagus is being cultivated.

The best of what’s eaten in Berlin comes from little towns in former East Germany, to the south of the city, where the perennial grows thickly along the river edges, or so we’re told. Here a ceremony opens Spargelzeit, and the season ends with a festival and election of a Spargel Queen, who is named Pomona. She is very angry with Vertumnus and willing to use all the powers of the growers’ association to get even.

Perhaps I should blame Ovid for the following image, but I imagine Rudolf shackled in the dark, in a forlorn Brandenburg barn, his Arcimboldesque visage turned albino. I imagine thousands of his herbaceous offshoots chained there too, forced to grow their pallid members in the gloom. They are cultivated, as some Dantesque contrapasso, or punishment that fits the crime, for their collective misdeeds. Now imagine crowned Pomona reveling in the May sunshine and her revenge. She offers you a spoonful of a delicately perfumed ice cream.

*Spargel=asparagus, Zeit=time or season


This entry was first published in space | time

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.