Of all the vegetables in the vegetable kingdom, asparagus definitely has the greatest snob appeal. That a sturdy working-class town like Stockton would even claim the wussy asparagus as one of its favored crops is rather like a macho dad wishing that his son would put away the football cleats and take up ballet instead. Stockton should have an onion or parsnip festival, not one devoted to the Frasier Crane of vegetables. But asparagus loves the Stockton soil; it grows prolifically in this Central Valley town. And Stockton, in turn, loves its asparagus festival -- especially all those Bay Area food snobs who arrive with hungry stomachs and fat wallets.
The Stockton Asparagus Festival was to be an occasion for these urbane sophisticates and other suave appreciators of fine produce. Then a loud belch reverberated throughout the line, scaring a few small children in its wake. A muffled bellow of "Dude!" soon pierced the air, as a paper-bag-sheathed Mickey's bottle clunked on the pavement. The mighty burper looked proud as the rest of the Class of 2005 cackled in encouragement and appreciation. This was the defining moment when Katy and Kirsten realized that they were wrong -- dead wrong -- about the Stockton Asparagus Festival.
Held in mid-spring, the three-day festival is definitely a big deal, one the whole town seems to turn out for. There were Linkin Park T-shirts for Junior, and that favorite faded Metallica shirt for Dad. Fake boobage peeking out of belly shirts and dirty flip-flops for the whole family.
Out-of-town visitors would have a difficult time getting lost. Huge signs direct the way, and policemen on the side of the road wave fairgoers toward a vast parking lot. Once safely parked, everyone was whisked into a line to buy tickets. Yet another line ended in the "asparabus," a caravan that dispatched everyone to the fairgrounds. Once on the bus, someone noticed the distinctive smell of whiskey. "Daaaammn, I hope that's not the driver," someone yelled, and the passengers erupted into cackles of carefree laughter.
After a long drive through Stockton's residential neighborhoods, we finally saw the fairground. Besides the people selling little wooden crates of asparagus at the entrance, the fair seemed strangely bereft of the emerald-green vegetable. There was plenty of run-of-the-mill county fair crap, however. Get your name painted on a grain of rice! License plate frames suggested that one could save gas by farting in a jar. Airbrushed paintings of hot chola girls.
Someone was selling "Churros, a delicious donut-like treat." There was also a cart full of "Dippin' Dots: The ice cream of the future." We saw corn dogs, Kettle Korn, and people eating free samples of Spam. The Foster Farms display was scary -- free raw chicken? Hormel was doing a brisk business giving away coupons. But where the hell was the asparagus?
Distracting us in our search for food were two youngsters dressed in asparagus suits. Although it might seem that walking around in a stifling vegetable costume would be easy and glamorous, the job was not without its pitfalls. "Little kids and drunk guys try to hug us all the time," sighed Britney S'pears. But Mr. Spearo Agnew said that even though the job had its drawbacks, the high pay made it all worthwhile. "For the money they're paying me, I'd dance around in a Speedo," he exclaimed. Britney S'pears said that the most popular question she got was if she ate asparagus. "People ask me that all the time -- I tell them that's like eating my children," she said somberly.
Finally we found what we were looking for in a special land called the "asparazone." But to our dismay, most of the food lines were incredibly long. The line for the coveted fried asparagus was seemingly endless. The people in this wretched line appeared to have forgotten why they were there in the first place. Sections of the queue resembled makeshift refugee camps or the worst Day on the Green concert ever. Some people had fallen asleep on the grass, others were playing gin rummy, and still others entertained themselves by watching wrestling on portable TV sets.
Strange as it may seem, there wasn't a huge line for the Aspararitas (margaritas made with guess what). These weren't as bad as they sound. While the beverage did have the distinctive and disconcerting hue of asparagus, the woman selling the cocktails said they hardly used any asparagus at all. "We just mash a few pounds up and add it in there; you can't hardly taste it." She was right -- it tasted mostly like bottom-shelf tequila.
Another booth sold all kinds of asparagus dishes: asparagus and beef burritos, an asparagus and tri-tip bowl, and an asparagus pasta dish. The line for the pasta was the shortest and so pasta it was. The portion was large, but the minced asparagus seemed to be an afterthought, and the salad with rotelli pasta, tomatoes, and olives was overdrenched in oil.
Although the fair had promised free entertainment, Katy and Kirsten were overjoyed when they learned that Nelson, the golden-tressed sons of the late Ricky Nelson, would be appearing later on the Central Valley Ford Stage. Katy, in particular, was very excited. But there were camera crews from the Food Network and an asparagus recipe contest over yonder in the Home and Garden Pavilion. Plus, two natives of the area said that there was going to be a very, very special food demonstration. "You will absolutely love it, you really should stay," urged Helen, one of our newfound friends.
The winners of the children's contest were displayed in a section of the Pavilion. Leigh Garritson's four children had swept the competition with their unusual and inventive use of asparagus. The proud and thrilled mother excitedly called relatives and friends on her cell phone to give them the good news. "I'm a culinary student and I guess they got inspired by me," she said excitedly. Besides a blue ribbon for her son's asparagus pie, the judges also were quite fond of the asparagus chocolate chip cookies that were baked from a recipe created by her eight-year-old daughter. (The secret is a cup of grated asparagus.)
Finally it was time for the cooking demo. Except it wasn't a cooking demo, but something perplexing and bizarre. As a heavily made-up actress took the stage, the eager crowd whistled and applauded wildly. But there was no stove, no food, no gregarious and hammy chef. The actress then proceeded to lip-synch an entire scene from I Love Lucy -- the one where Lucy got drunk on the so-called vitamin elixir, Vitameatavegamin.
When the scene finally ended, the actress autographed 8" x 10" glossies of herself dressed in the same Lucy garb. "Wasn't that something?" an audience member beamed to her friend. It certainly was. And to think that all this time, Katy and Kirsten could have been making fun of Nelson.
It was getting late and the line for the fried asparagus hadn't gotten any smaller. So we went to the fried Twinkie stand, where there was no line, and ordered one of those instead. It came with a drizzle of raspberry sauce and a dollop of whipped cream. It was delicious.
What the Fork - March 24, 10:21 AM