Finding pleasure in deprivation.
WORDS: STEVEN PERLBERG | ART: GERAY MENA
Since moving to Berlin a year ago, I have tried my best to avoid using easy stereotypes. No, not all Germans are rule followers, though many don’t care for jaywalking in front of impressionable children. Yes, Germans can be funny, though typically not in the style of American sarcasm. Obscenely long German words are actually just compounds without spaces, so it’s not that big of a deal. But there is at least one principle that, in my admittedly limited focus group of local friends and acquaintances, holds true: Germans fucking love asparagus season.
It comes as a surprise to newcomers who associate German cuisine with bratwursts and bread dumplings to learn that Germans cherish white asparagus, in some cases above all else. Known as Spargelzeit, white asparagus season begins in mid-to-late April. Lines form in grocery stores, farmers markets, and freestanding Spargel kiosks. Restaurants offer entire white asparagus menus, from soups to side dishes to a traditional preparation in butter or hollandaise with potatoes and ham. Last year, the chocolate company Ritter Sport even posted a fake white asparagus flavor on Instagram (see, Germans are funny). In the town of Beelitz, an Asparagus Queen is crowned at an annual festival. But on June 24th, the midsummer celebration of St. John’s Day, white asparagus promptly vanishes.
Spargelzeit is singular, but Germans commemorate other seasons with characteristically quirky passion. Like many other facets of German life, this is usually regional. Oktoberfest, in Bavaria, marks the most well-known example as a beer-focused tourism draw, but in Germany’s north, for instance, people celebrate winter grünkohl season by going on kale-eating, schnapps-drinking hikes led by a Kale King and Kale Queen.
Germans’ enthusiasm for seasonal goods is reflected in a place that can really make you feel like an expat: the grocery store. In the U.S., I came to expect the availability of all fruits and vegetables year-round, with some minor exceptions. German shoppers, by contrast, have been disciplined by discount chains to wait for things like blackberries, cherries, and the “white gold” of Spargel. There are exceptions here, too, particularly when it comes to wider offerings at upscale grocers. But there is real merit to this kind of lifestyle beyond “eating local” or considerations about the environmental impact of imported out-of-season food. To live and cook in Germany is to accept and ideally embrace a greater sense of seasonality.
Denied strawberries for months on end, I idle in German grocery stores thinking about how American capitalism has flattened the calendar. Things are accessible at all times—for a price. I probably made brussels sprouts all year long in America only to move and discover they are exclusively a winter vegetable here. I enjoy them more now that they are seasonal to me.
We act this out in our lives already. I could stream Christmas music on Spotify whenever I want, but I choose not to. We treasure seasonal delights not because we are deprived of them, but because we deprive ourselves of them. German grocery stores have, improbably, given me a greater respect of the calendar in an era when everything is so readily at our fingertips. I guess I am advocating for delayed gratification, a buzzy phrase promulgated as a novel concept by Instagram hype that is nevertheless good for the soul. I hope I can carry on a more seasonal way of thinking even if I return to America. I will only cook brussels sprouts when it’s cold out, but I will never make white asparagus, because it’s really not that good.