It’s Spargelzeit, time of the year Germans celebrate the arrival of spring by collectively losing their shit over the nation’s most treasured veg: asparagus. Whether it’s nostalgia, a penchant for Hollandaise or simply the love of strong-smelling urine, the obsession goes as far back as the Ancient Greeks, who harvested wild asparagus for the goddess Aphrodite.
The times we live in mean that Berlin’s top asparagus spots are closed once more. But maybe that’s no bad thing, because of a revealing cinematic trend: Is it me, or does asparagus only show up in films to serve a harbinger of doom? The second they show up on screen, you can bet something is amiss or that inevitable disaster is afoot.
Here are four pieces of inconvertible cinematic evidence that should give even the staunchest spargel lover something to think about.
“Will someone please pass me the fucking asparagus?”
Numerous cultures and folk traditions have used asparagus in marriage ceremonies, considering the freshly spouted stalks as an aphrodisiac and an emblem of fecundity, the phallic asparagus being the flipside to the vaginal fig. But with marriage can come marital strife, and nowhere is this better seen than in Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning 1999 debut, American Beauty.
In one of the film’s most infamous scenes, dinner is set and Lester (Kevin Spacey) lets years of pent-up frustration loose when he simply asks for the asparagus – which seem to be roasted, with a cheeky vinaigrette and lemons. When no one obliges, he gets up, crosses to the other side of the table to get the plate of stalky goodness, serves himself, and then hurls the plate against the wall with such force it shatters, to the surprise of both his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch).
The Freudian credentials of the sexually charged asparagus are undisputed and here we have a man, in the midst of a midlife crisis, finally standing up to the unfaithful partner that has emasculated him for too long. If you adhere to the dream symbol meaning of the asparagus, whereby it signifies good decisions made by the dreamer who should continue to follow his heart, Lester is taking back control with a helping of penis-shaped food. So, asparagus as a symbolic liberator? Maybe, but if you watch till the closing credits, it doesn’t exactly end well for the marriage. Or Lester, for that matter.
“Asparagus, is this all about your asparagus?”
The 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote that asparagus “stirs up lust in man and woman”. He failed to mention that it also stirs up plenty of resentment. Indeed, Phantom Thread joins American Beauty in showing that with freshly cooked stalks comes relationship discord, here with a strong accent on toxic masculinity.
In one of the best scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s superb 2017 historical drama, the viewer witnesses another dinner discussion between two lovers, clothes designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his partner Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). Alma has prepared the asparagus and the veg is used as a tool in their argument: “As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt”, states the passive aggressive Woodcock, continuing: “Knowing this, you have prepared the asparagus with butter. (…) Right now, I’m just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you’ve prepared it.”
The heated exchange that ensues stresses the toxicity within the relationship and the sheer patriarchal nutsackery of Woodcock, an impossibly exhausting man-child who needs everyone to be at his beck and call. Once again, the phallic veg is a domestic bliss-shattering catalyst, one with great importance: as the movie progresses, the calculated importance and symbolic heft of food unravels, with the couple’s power dynamic gradually revealing itself. Watch closely, and you’ll find it’s more a food flick than it is a fashion movie.
Plus, his name is Woodcock. Coincidence, considering the presence of the phallic veggie? I think not.
Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls
“Do I have something in my teeth?”
There are so many ways of enjoying asparagus: raw, grilled, pickled, blanched, bacon-wrapped, with parmesan shavings… Or you could wind back the clocks to 1995 and use it as a prop to ruin everyone’s brunch, shocking the guests by creating a makeshift Lovecraftian hors-d’oeuvres-face that won’t get you invited to any more get-togethers.
Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) is on the hunt to the find the Great White bat Shikaka, a sacred animal of the native Wachati tribe. After arriving in the fictional African country of Nibia, he meets the consul Vincent Cadby. In the incriminating scene, he struts around the lavish brunch table and makes quite the impression by unexpectedly shoving six oily asparagus stalks in his mouth, spouting some nonsense, before spitting them all out in one impressive go.
Hardly a mark of respect or professionalism, especially considering he’s getting his mission brief – in a foreign land, no less. Granted, no one denies that Ace Ventura would have found another vegetable to provoke the upper-class colonialists had asparagus been off-menu, but once again, the veggies are the guilty party and the harbinger of much doom… and of a less superior sequel.
“What about this? A tribe of asparagus children…”
French monasteries grew asparagus in order to please the Sun King, Louis XIV, who even had the veg grown in his greenhouses so he could enjoy it year-round. With that historical stamp of approval, what possible evil could come from the stalks?
Plenty, as our final incriminating film tells us. Take the case of Eugene in Elf.
If you’re not au-fait with Jon Favreau’s Will Ferrell-starring Christmas classic, Elf follows Buddy, a human who was adopted and raised by Santa’s elves, who goes to New York City to meet his biological father, Walter Hobbs, a famous children’s book publisher. Cut to a brainstorm session discussing book ideas, in which one of the team members, Eugene, has a flash of inspiration: “What about this? A tribe of asparagus children, but they’re self-conscious about the way their pee smells.”
I think it’s safe to say that we’d all read that. But the idea centred on shaming those sensitive about sulphur-containing compound methyl mercaptan (which is mixed with asparagine to create that distinctive pee stink) is shot down. Moral of the story: if you don’t want to be humiliated – or worse, fired – then maybe don’t mention asparagus at work.
There we have it. Despite its nutritional value and erotic overtones, asparagus isn’t always a force for good. The next time you think it’s a canny idea to nibble on some spargel with your significant other or, heaven forfend, bring it up in a work environment, keep these four films in mind, all of which are currently available to stream. Guten Appetit?