Crimes in the Family
(by Patricia Fieldsteel)
Asparagus runs on the matrilineal side of my family. My mother was particular about how it could be served and eaten. The stalks had to be green, eaten delicately, cut into small pieces with knife and fork, preferably on a separate plate, overcooked, thin, and slathered with bread crumbs sautéed in butter. As children, my younger brothers and I picked around the asparagus and ate the crunchy butter-soaked crumbs. My mother’s younger sister, Ellin, liked asparagus thick, green or white. And their father, my grandfather, named “Pop-up” by me as an infant, loved fat white French asperges smothered in Hollandaise and eaten as a main course.
Pop-up’s mother, Ray, known as Grandma the Great, ate it like a savage with her hands, dropping each plump shoot whole into her mouth while she mulched it with slurps and grunts. “Dahlings,” she’d announce, Hollandaise dripping down her wrists, “on the Continent, everyone eats this way!” My mother would snarl at her that she was disgusting. “Makh tsu deyn moyl,” Ray would answer haughtily in Yiddish (“Shut your mouth”) and open hers wide for another stalk. Nana, my maternal grandmother and contender for one of the world’s most clueless cooks, would remove soggy tasteless pale green stalks from a jar, stabbing them to pieces in the process.
When she was a toddler, Ellin was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and mental retardation. They were merely labels that had little to do with who she really was, should anyone have bothered to look. When I was a baby and learning about who was a girl, who was a boy, and who was a grownup, apparently I said, “Ellin is an Ellin.” She had a droll sense of humor, a hesitant unmodulated voice, and a loopy manner of speaking. She was fat and unattractive, both major crimes in my family. Once I had broken away from my parents and brothers, I came to adore her.
Weekends I’d take the subway to Borough Park in Brooklyn where she had an apartment within a facility for disabled adults in a Hasidic neighborhood, the only one that would accept such a residence. The highlight was lunch at Ellin’s favorite coffee shop. I don’t think they served asparagus, but she loved the mounds of mashed potatoes smothered in gluey gravy, the meatloaf, and the pièce de resistance, a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and maraschino cherry. Because of her spasticity, her table manners weren’t great. When criticized, she would remind people that she grew up in a home with eight servants and knew the difference between a dessert spoon and a soup spoon, and that two additional women came every Friday to make butterballs for the week.
My mother hated Ellin and was deeply ashamed of her. She constantly yelled about how Ellin ate. For birthdays and Christmas, she would give Ellin the worst presents she could find. Once it was an unwrapped tin of supermarket cookies; another time it was a hand-cranked—not even electric—pencil sharpener. Ellin remarked drily, “This year Joyce gave me a pencil sharpener for Christmas; maybe next year she’ll gimme some pencils!”
One of their ultimate showdowns, though, was over asparagus. The family had gathered at my parents’ for Christmas dinner (they had renounced their Judaism). We had standing rib roast of beef, Yorkshire pudding, and asparagus. Ellin picked up a stalk with her hands and ate it. My mother exploded, screaming that she was revolting. Ellin continued eating, announcing, “Grandma eats like that.” No one said a word, while my mother berated them both.
A decade or so later, my parents and I were dismantling the apartment of my father’s mother, Grandma Ruth. My father suggested that we take a dinner break. A well-reviewed restaurant nearby was selected. My mother ordered a side plate of asparagus Hollandaise. And yes, you guessed it, she ate it with her hands, outdoing both Ray and Ellin with each bite. Neither my father nor I dared say a word.
Patricia Fieldsteel is a native New York writer who has lived in Provence, France, since 2002.
Green Herb Mayonnaise
The crucial aspect is that the herbs must be fresh. I prefer using store-bought mayonnaise—when I lived in America, I used Hellmann’s—because the preservatives enable it to last longer. You can add or subtract whatever herbs you prefer. The sauce is superb on cool asparagus, as well as on salmon or sliced cold chicken or roast beef sandwiches.
2 c. mayonnaise
1/2 t. Dijon mustard
1 bunch chopped watercress leaves
1 bunch chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves, along with a few chopped stems
1 bunch chopped dill fronds
2 cloves minced garlic
2 bunches of the whites and a small amount of the green of finely chopped scallions
leaves from the sprigs of several branches of thyme
3 leaves chopped basil
1 bunch chopped chives
Put all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and whoosh until you have a reasonably smooth green sauce. Keep refrigerated in tightly sealed glass jar.
Asparagus Ribbons and Linguine in Lemon Cream Sauce
The key to this recipe is fresh, high-quality ingredients. The cream must be heavy, the butter sweet, the lemons and juice fresh, as well as the asparagus. If you don’t have homemade linguine, use a good boxed brand. My own favorite is DeCecco.
1 lb. fat green asparagus
1 lb. linguine
4 T. unsalted butter
3/4 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
3 T. freshly grated lemon zest
1 1/2 t. salt
4 large shallots, thinly sliced and chopped
freshly grated Parmesan cheese (approximately 1/2 c.)
optional: chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or basil or chives or dill
black pepper, freshly ground
optional: fresh bread crumbs or panko, sautéed in butter
Break the asparagus stems at the woody part that's inedible.
Cut off buds on the diagonal and set aside.
With a vegetable peeler, slice thick ribbons of asparagus, and set aside.
Boil 6 quarts of salted water, and add a small amount of olive oil to cook linguine.
During final 3 minutes, add asparagus ribbons.
Drain in colander, reserving 2 c. pasta water.
In a large skillet, melt butter.
Add shallots and cook over low heat until soft and translucent.
Add cream, lemon juice, zest, and salt, stirring.
If sauce is too thick, add pasta water to the desired consistency.
Add asparagus ribbons and linguine, blending to coat with sauce.
Add Parmesan, herbs, fresh-ground black pepper, and salt to taste.
Cook asparagus tips in reserved pasta water for just 1 or 2 minutes.
Garnish pasta with asparagus tips and optional bread crumbs.
Serve with additional Parmesan grated at table.
Serves 4 as a main course.