Just like you, whenever I pass through the produce section of the supermarket at this time of year I think of W Somerset Maugham. Specifically I think of his story The Luncheon.
The story is told by a young writer in Paris. In the traditional manner of young writers he is poor. And in the traditional manner of writers young and old he is amenable to flattery. So when an unknown reader writes him a letter of praise he is delighted. A month or two later she writes again saying that she will be passing through Paris soon and might she possibly have the honour of meeting him, perhaps over a little luncheon at Foyot's.
Now this is the 1920s so it would be expected for the man to foot the luncheon bill, and the writer knows that Foyot's is a wildly expensive restaurant. But he has been charmed by the flattery and he tells himself that if he economises on coffee and other treats for a month or so, and if he himself eats very little at the luncheon, he may just be able to afford it.
His first impression of the woman when they meet in the restaurant is that she is considerably older than he had expected and her mouth seemed overstuffed with teeth. Nevertheless she puts his mind at rest by saying that she eats very little at luncheon. "Only perhaps a little fish," she says and wonders whether there may be some salmon. Yes there is. The salmon is ordered. The writer is appalled by the cost of it. For himself he orders the cheapest thing: a single chop.
While the salmon and chop are prepared the woman wonders whether she might have just a smidgen of caviar. And perhaps a half bottle of Chateau Cher. And so on. While insisting that she eats almost nothing for luncheon she eats and drinks an enormous amount for luncheon, all of it hugely expensive. It culminates, and this is the reason I raise the story now, in asparagus.
When I first read the story as a teenager I had never eaten or seen asparagus. I knew of it only from literature and thought of it as a vegetable of mythological excellence. And the way Maugham described the asparagus - steamed emerald, drooping, succulent and awash with melted butter - only confirmed that notion.
My asparagine virginity was a long one. When I arrived on these shores at the age of 29 I still had not put a spear to my lips. I happened to say as much to a colleague one afternoon à propos of I no longer remember what and he said with admirable simplicity, 'Then I shall cook you some.' His name was John. 'Thank you,' I said.
A week or so later John emerged from his kitchen with a bowl of asparagus - steaming, emerald and butter-drenched exactly as per the story. Well now, I thought, prepare for disappointment.
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For the truth of the matter is that few foods transcend. I have eaten caviar and lobster tail and the hearts of artichokes. I have drunk champagne. They're all nice enough, but no more.
Asparagus at least has the virtue of looking different. It is clearly not a root. Nor yet is it a seeding pod, or any sort of fruit. Nor is it, to all appearances, a leaf or branch. It seems to be just a stem, tipped by an impressionist's paintbrush.
"Use your fingers," said my host. Between finger and thumb I lifted a spear from the bowl and bit. It was not soggy and it was not crisp. It was, as per Maugham, succulent. And it was sweet And it was unlike any vegetable I'd ever eaten.
"It will do odd things to your pee," said John.
"Let it," I said. For I was in love.
And I have remained in love these thirty-something years. At this time of the year I eat the stuff daily and do not tire of it. Unlike most other vegetables - and by most I mean all - it is close to a meal on its own. It is - and I do not say this lightly - up there with meat.
The Maugham story ends twenty years later when the writer bumps into the woman again by chance. She does not recognise him and he only just recognises her, but the recognition brings a belated sense of vengeance. "For today she weighs twenty-one stone."
(I no longer have a copy of the story so I just looked it up online to check I have the details right. The last line now reads - 'today she weighs 133 kilos.' How can they do these things?)