When is asparagus not really just asparagus?

In a conversation with a neighbor today, I learned that kiwi from New Zealand is cheaper than kiwi from California. My neighbor was wondering how that could be the case. Earlier we had been lamenting that the workers from our neighborhood’s landscaping company do not know (or care?) how to properly prune bushes. We understand that you get what you pay for when it comes to landscaping. Could that be the same for kiwi? 

Originally, I wanted to write a post on behavior change, and I will, soon. The cornerstone of behavior change through conversation is to refrain from arguing, exhorting, advising, or otherwise trying to convince the other person in any way. 

However, my neighbor’s thoughts on kiwi, and her insistence that she values “efficiency”, really made me think about a possible “teachable moment” in this case. After all, isn’t efficiency the reason why our landscaping team has not bothered to learn how to trim bushes in a healthy way?

Being the locavore I try to be, I know little about kiwi these days. I live in Colorado, and all I can tell you is that they grow here, but I have yet to see a single Colorado kiwi.

However, I know a lot about asparagus. I won’t buy them at the store anymore, and why is that? Well, first, it’s that they might not taste very good, for the price I pay. Second, I do not know the people who grow the asparagus in the store (OK, I’m spoiled, I’ll admit). Also, frankly, after gorging all June, I’m done with asparagus for the rest of the year. Finally, there is an undercurrent of my annoyed self-righteousness: I actually resent the grocery store for importing asparagus from Peru all winter.

Thus the title of this post: asparagus actually is never just asparagus. The stuff I buy at the farmers’ market at exorbitant prices is … a divine eating experience. It’s also the proud smiles of the farmers displaying the juicy spears customers line up for every week. It’s what helps keep the local farms going, so I can have nutritious food all year – such as the more affordable winter squash, potatoes and dry beans I get later in the season. It’s even the hat that will keep the farmer’s toddler warm next winter.

Peruvian asparagus, on the other hand, is not even mostly a vegetable. I have nothing against Peruvians, and I wish them warm hats and open smiles, but I just don’t like what I would be getting if I bought their vegetables. I know I would be buying working conditions I will never witness. I would be paying for jet fuel, for more global warming, and ongoing foreign wars. The effort I put into insulating my house, lowering my winter thermostat, resisting the lure of the A/C button yet another day, switching light bulbs, saving water, turning off lights – that effort is undone by flying asparagus, and travel-weary kiwi. Real produce wouldn’t do that, would it?

What we purchase is so often not just what it seems to be. The relationships are just too muddled, the supply chains too long. Most of us would be appalled at how much herbicide and pesticide we each buy, through homeowners’ association fees, in the form of cotton T-shirts, by subsidizing school lunches. It makes me dizzy to think about it, but taking it one step at a time, I can work every day to buy more of what I need.

It turns out I don’t value “efficiency” highly, after all. But then, as a knitter, a mother, a casual gardener, and the slowest doctor in my clinic, I knew that already.

1 comment

David Eggleton wrote 10 years 48 weeks ago


Thank you for knitting a whole piece on mere consumption.

Means to ends matter a lot; for the production of wealth that's real, producers of food must be many (and well-distributed) and temperate consumers eat in season.

I'm echoing the Confucius quotation in Wendell Berry's Think Little.

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