Why is Asparagus So Important in Germany?
Wimbledon has its strawberries; Washington D.C. has its cherry blossoms; Germany has its spargelzeit (asparagus season).
Unless you have spent years in Germany, you don't know what madness befalls the Teutons during the first white-asparagus harvest of the year. And, unless you grew up there, you will never completely understand it.
White asparagus, or deutscher spargel, is a great delicacy in German-speaking countries and people take their spring harvest celebrations seriously.
After the long winter, spargelzeit is one of the first signs that summer will come again.
"It's just white asparagus," you say. "How important can it be?"
Important enough to have asparagus-peeling contests, sometimes with local politicians and dignitaries (and what a wild time that is).
Important enough to have special dishes, serving and cooking utensils just for asparagus.
And definitely important enough that when you receive an invitation for a spargelessen, you should treat it with the utmost respect and decorum.
Spargel (asparagus) is expensive and the harvest is short, so these dinner parties are a special offering to you, the guest.
Common Asparagus Etiquette Rules
Serving spargel: Spargel is most often served as the centerpiece of the meal. Each guest has 5 to 8 spears of asparagus on the plate and then chooses from at least two sauces (usually melted butter and Hollandaise), cooked and dried ham slices, and boiled new potatoes.
Some people serve pork cutlets, others serve hard-cooked eggs, quartered. In Southern Germany, they serve asparagus in thin pancakes with sauce.
Eating spargel correctly: Germans used to eat asparagus with their fingers but since the advent of stainless-steel knives, which don't rust, it has become proper to cut them with a knife and fork.
Eat from the stalk end to the tip, to save the best for last. It is rude not to finish your portion of asparagus, even if you leave other food on your plate. Also, do not ask for more asparagus, wait until it is offered to you.
Ordering spargel in a restaurant: All-you-can-eat spargel used to be very popular in the '80s and '90s but the vegetable has become so expensive that most restaurants limit the asparagus portion of the meal nowadays. If you are lucky enough to find an all-you-can-eat restaurant, make advance reservations and bring a lot of patience. They place big bowls of potatoes and butter on the table, which limits your capacity for the spargel.
Betriebsausflüge: Many companies have betriebsausflüge or "company field trips," which end at a restaurant. During Spargelzeit, the ham and potatoes will be served family style, at large tables. You often pay for your own drinks. Make sure you go on these field trips if you are part of a company. It's a paid day off work and it builds character.
Buying asparagus: Buying asparagus at the open air market is an exercise in trust. Apart from the visual, you are not allowed to inspect the goods. You must let the seller pick up and bundle the wares.
It is a good idea to get recommendations from neighbors as to which seller you go to and which market to visit. A usual serving is 500 grams, about one pound (ein Pfund) per person.
Here is more on the different varieties of asparagus in Germany.