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A la Hollandaise
by Paul Park
Preparing any sort of asparagus for the table can be a messy business, and I have heard from several sources, during my research, that the same rules might apply as to certain recipes for sweetbreads or head cheese—the less said the better! It is an axiom worth contemplating that desire and knowledge can, in general circumstances, bear an inverse relation, one to the other, but in this particular case I must demur, because of my contention that ignorance of procedure can lead to personal injury and bitten fingers if the chef receives no warning. When the asparagus has been gently bred, as here, and nurtured in rich soil, utmost care must be taken to remove it, first of all, from any four-footed companion, which performs the same function as the prickers of an artichoke or rose. In this instance I waited for the animal to fall asleep on the settee, before I injected it with a solution to relax its muscles and disable it. I then was able to extract the vegetable without harm to either of us and lay it out. Of course I could not use the same injection on the asparagus itself, for fear of spoiling the flesh. I have heard cases of some clients who perceived an unpleasant numbness in their mouth and lips, caused by cooks who had undertaken this particular short-cut, through sympathy or laziness, two states that are interchangeable in this instance. No, there is nothing for it, but that the vegetable must be stretched out raw, preferably upon a ridged, zinc surface, which allows any juices to drain off. I tend to put some tape over the lips, and bind the wrists and ankles to avoid unpleasantness. I then snip the buttons down the front with poultry shears and then peel back the smock to reveal the tender flesh, my hands encased in rubber gloves. One might speak of the eyes of a potato, but at this moment in the procedure the eyes of the asparagus are furious and engorged, and leak a pungent, greenish water that must be syphoned with a dropper for later use. Mrs. Smithson, who planted this particular raised bed, claims that the flavor sets at the moment when the tender asparagus begins to comprehend his or her particular result, whether he or she is destined, for example, to be boiled and buttered over toast, or cut into pieces and served with white wine. Mrs. Smithson says that terror, for example, tastes sweeter than despair. She has a discriminating palate, and to accommodate her, I will pass my implements, the cleaver, say, or the boiling pan, over the head, while at the same time manipulating my eye-dropper. Mrs. Smithson will not mind if I save a drop or two for later, for myself, sprinkled over a glass of water while I sit alone in my darkened room.
by Jennifer Rapaport
When the letter arrived—moments ago—you were in your husband’s garden, bingeing on soft, white asparagus; but it is not the letter you hoped it would be. It is the other one, the old one, the one wrapped up in a woolen scarf and sent away by rail. The one about an aspiring housewife and her lover-in-retrospect, a young Adonis. You had stopped expecting this particular dispatch years ago, and it tears at your heart all over again. You want to read it immediately, but there is something in your eye.
The man whose garden you return to interrupts this thought with a hard shake of his very wet hair. He has just come from a bath, expecting asparagus in addition to potatoes, and when he sees that you have eaten every stick, he gets uptight. He complains about your appetite, your selfishness, your poor-to-bad timing. You try to blink away the discomfort. But when he sees the letter in your lap, there is a sudden appreciation of you. You are A) more valuable and B) better cared for.
“What’s that?” he says, as if he didn’t know. He hands you his handkerchief and you dab at your now-watering eye. He picks up his knife—which he never used before—and his fork, and cuts daintily at the tender cubes.
“It’s the letter with the scarf in it,” you say. You stare at him to see if he looks better now, or worse. You decide that the manners are a nice addition; that you hope they stick around; that perhaps you should read the letter.
“You’re kidding,” he says. He puts down his utensils. “How do you know?”
“Postmark,” you say, because there it is on the stamps: New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Saint Paul, Minnesota.
“But how did it find you? After all this time?”
How did it, indeed? Are you so find-able that after all these years, this letter? Or is it the opposite? Perhaps there is an exponential lag time here, in which case you will die without knowing the ending.
Later, after potatoes, when the dishes and the handkerchief and the man have all gone away, you return to the garden with the letter. When you open the envelope, finally, you pretend you are your husband doing the reading. It is an exercise in empathy, and also in remove:
The salutation is the sting of a bumblebee underfoot—a sharp shock through a thick skin—and it just gets worse from there. The warmth of the sentences make him feel small and dull and mean of heart, but he breathes through his nose and believes that he can be—will be—as full as this old lover, frozen in time and tenderness. And he wants to make up for all that you did not get because of him, and because of this letter that never came, and that never went away.