When it’s a steady 70 degrees for 11 months out of the year, produce is a colorful reminder that seasons do exist in Southern California. As a general rule, green means spring. Fava tendrils appear, followed by pea tendrils, snap peas, English peas, and the ultimate indicator, asparagus, which showed up at the market this week under a blue canopy that read “Zuckerman’s Farm.”
Every microcosm has gossip, and at this week’s Santa Monica Wednesday market it was centered on Zuckerman’s famous delta asparagus. “It’s not really good yet,” market regular DJ Olsen said, shaking his head. “I tasted some and it’s just not ready.” In another ear I overheard, “But Providence ordered 40 pounds.”
Zach Jarrett, chef de cuisine at Sqirl, wasn’t ready to commit. “Their asparagus is the best,” he said. “That’s definitely what we’ll use, but we’ll probably wait for the jumbo.” (While he waits, he’s focused on Windrose Farm’s Japanese pea tendrils, which he serves wilted over a springtime carbonara. Also on his shopping list is green garlic, which gives Sqirl’s current rendition of avocado toast its je ne sais quoi.)
To Jarrett’s point, this week Zuckerman’s stand was fully stocked with pencil-thin asparagus. A handful of bunches approached the thickness of a Crayola marker, but nothing close to the highly regarded jumbo that are both comically large and impossibly tender. Juan Acevedo, who has worked for the company for years, says the prized jumbo asparagus and sweeter purple varieties will appear in two weeks and last through May.
If you have ever considered ditching your desk job for the bucolic life of a farmer, try picking asparagus for an afternoon. During a short stint as a farmer, I foolishly took to the task with a switchblade in need of sharpening. Within 10 minutes, my knife was clogged with dirt and my lower back barking from the pain. The professionals use specialized asparagus knives equipped with long sturdy handles and a single blade that resembles the fletching of an arrow. The long shaft of the knife is thrust into the soil and the base of the asparagus shoot clipped before it ever sees the light of day. I have no doubt that the lower back pain remains despite the specialized technology.
At Zuckerman’s Farm in Stockton, workers manage 700 acres of peaty black soil that puts out 60 tons of asparagus each season. According to Santa Monica Farmers Market manager Laura Avery, the soil is the color of chocolate mousse. The unique texture, color, and nutrient-rich qualities of the earth are due to the farm’s placement in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. This land, writes pomologist David Karp, “is the top asparagus-growing district in the state and the nation, and the last bastion of a traditional crop that has largely succumbed to lower-priced imports.”
You can find Zuckerman Farm’s asparagus at farmers’ markets from San Francisco to Los Angeles until early June.