Every year, during the first week of May, the folks who live around here start chattering excitedly about grass. No, we’re not anticipating the thrill of pulling out the lawn mower, and springtime isn’t inspiring us to get stoned. (Well, maybe it is, but we don’t chatter about that so much). Grass is Hadley grass, the street name of asparagus. It is, literally, our first taste of spring.
Hadley is a small town located between Northampton and Amherst. I like to think of it as our little slice of the Midwest. Flat, and very rural, it is home to many small farms and a clump of big box stores. One of the strip malls in Hadley has a Walmart at one end and a Whole Foods at the other. I’ve been waiting for years to see a rumble in the parking lot, with one group wielding cheaply made shoes and the other, handfuls of organic nuts. The remaining stores would have to choose sides, with Panera remaining neutral, like Switzerland. The Home Depot and the Aldi across the street will send aid to either side.
Hadley’s malls sit on a site that was once primarily asparagus fields. From the 1930s until the 1970s, Hadley was considered the asparagus capital of the world. A 2007 Saveur article nicely details the history, which I will paraphrase. Asparagus thrived here due to our fertile soil of sandy loam and the cool climate. It was eaten across the Northeast, and even exported to Europe where it was considered a delicacy. The name “grass” comes from “sparrow grass,” an expression that long ago evolved from the “asparagus.” (I like to call it “aspara goose” but that’s far less poetic).
In the 1970s, much of the Hadley grass crop—plants that had survived for more than 30 years in some cases—was devastated by a fungus called fusarium. Most farmers moved on to other crops, while a few found ways to keep the asparagus going. Now, it’s mostly just a treat for us locals, and one we relish. It appears at farmstands and on menus all over the area, and even in a flavor of ice cream at Flayvors of Cook Farm. (If you live in Great Barrington, you can get some too: my brother drives out to Hadley each year to get a supply for his store, Rubiner’s).
Before living in the Pioneer Valley, I didn’t like asparagus. I had probably had some terrible stuff in my childhood and never went near it again. But when I moved here, everyone made such a fuss that I had to give in. I was an instant convert, and like a convert, I became a little nutty about it. By May 1, I make a daily trip to Serio’s (my favorite market), looking for bunches of spears sitting out front in the metal box filled with water. Once it arrives, I eat it nearly every day, usually just steamed or roasted with olive oil. (Either I’m a purist or too lazy to make Hollandaise sauce.) I keep going until they become more infrequent and sadly woody. Fortunately, the end of asparagus season melancholy is tempered by the arrival of strawberry season and the first hints of summer.
But that’s a month a way. For now, we’ll enjoy the site of the daily asparagus bunch sitting in a container of water on the counter, a harbinger of all the local delights ahead of us. After the brutal winter we had, it seems to taste even better.