Oh, yes! The jokes about asparagus-scented pee. Why the fascination? And why the historic argument about it? Apparently people have been arguing about asparagus-scented pee for hundreds of years. Whether everyone who ate asparagus has funny smelling pee afterward. Whether everyone could smell it. Whether it was a good smell or a bad smell. Really?
Leave it up to modern scientists to get down and dirty with the most trifling of arguments. They actually did studies about it and published big fancy papers on their results. At least we now know. Yes, everyone who eats asparagus has funny smelling pee. No, not everyone can smell it. Apparently because of genetics, only about 1/5 of the population can positively identify the smell. Some people cannot. And it’s a personal preference if asparagus is an improvement over regular pee or not.
I never thought much about it until I started reading Tom Robbins, and in his book Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas he colors an intimate exchange between characters with the promise of asparagus-scented pee. Very few authors could get away with this.
When buying asparagus, look at the dark tips to make sure they look fresh and not slimy. There are of course many incorrect things you can do when cooking asparagus. To me, the two worst things are overcooking it, and leaving too much stem on it. Asparagus should be just barely past raw. Lightly sauteed to wake it up. I generally like it a simple as possible to let the flavors speak for themselves. A little olive oil in the pan with salt and pepper, and maybe some diced ginger and a splash of lemon juice. Only when the pan is hot and the ginger sizzling, do I toss in the asparagus and cover-turn-cover for just a few minutes. When it shows the first sign of relaxing, long before it goes limp, take it off the heat and out of the pan.
Before you toss it into the pan, you have to take off the fibrous part of the stalk so that you don’t spend half the night chewing, or trying to figure out how to cough up an asparagus hairball with a little more grace than a cat. The simplest method to separate tender from tough is to hold the base of the stalk firmly in one hand pointed away from you, and with the other hand, gently grab the tip and start bending it towards you until you feel the resistance in the stem. It will usually snap itself easily at just the right spot. Try it a few times and you’ll see how easy it is to find the snapping point.
But why waste all of that stem and get only a little of a pricey veggie that makes you pee smell funny? Ultimately, because asparagus is a delicious source of nutrients, including a wide range of vitamins and minerals (significantly folic acid, vitamin K, iron), and fiber. Many different cooking cultures celebrate asparagus, so there’s quite a few ways to prepare it. Yet oddly enough, it’s grown in only a few places around the world (notably Michigan, Washington, California, China, Peru).
We are of course only talking about the typical green asparagus commonly available in most grocery stores. Originally there was only wild asparagus, much thinner than the current favorite, and this was harvested as far back as 3000 B.C. by the Egyptians. Our common green asparagus developed over time as it became a sought-after crop. There is a contemporary demand for white asparagus (shoots are grown under soil) in Europe, as well as a few newer breeds being developed. You can usually find it canned or ‘marinated’ if you can’t find it fresh. The Egyptians once dried it, which is just something those wacky folks seemed to love doing.
Asparagus is another of those veggies that has people worked up. Most people have an opinion about it. Some refuse to eat it. Some make websites devoted to its awesomeness. The possibilities are endless for this delicious, nutritious veggie. And worse comes to worst, you’ll know if you’re in that group of 22% who are genetically capable of accurately sniffing out asparagus pee.