Wednesday, May 15, 2002
Little spears create high hopes
Fertile ground and fertile imagination grow fine festival in tiny May's Lick, Ky.
By Chuck Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MAY'S LICK, Ky. You might think that in order to put on an asparagus festival, complete with a parade featuring Gus the Asparagus Guy, you might need to actually grow more than a little asparagus. Maybe a lot of asparagus.
You might think that.
But the people of May's Lick don't buy into that silly theory. They will host their sixth annual Asparagus Festival Saturday in this hamlet, about 12 miles outside Maysville, despite the fact there's only one relatively small asparagus patch to be found.
This is part of our history that we're trying to keep alive, says Myrtle Bolden, a May's Lick native who will sell asparagus bread and other treats at the festival with her husband, Allen.
They grow tons of asparagus in northern California where they hold the Stockton Asparagus Festival, and they cut hundreds of bushels of spears in Michigan, where they host the National Asparagus Festival in Shelby.
In May's Lick, the town with one flashing traffic light and a population of 350 (more or less), they grow a mere 550 asparagus plants and those went into the ground only last year.
May's Lick natives Allen Bolden and his wife, Myrtle, will sell asparagus bread and other baked goods at the Asparagus Festival Saturday from their booth called 3 Chicks and a Rooster.|
(Gary Landers photos)
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But this does not deter proud folks here from proclaiming May's Lick as the Asparagus Capital of the Commonwealth.
May's Lick is Mayberry with a healthy sense of self-esteem.
I think it's a good idea, says Allen Ramsey, owner of May's Lick Farm Supply. The festival brings people together and gives them something to do.
Like many in May's Lick, Mr. Ramsey has trouble remembering the last time he ate asparagus. That doesn't matter either. He and his wife will serve free Cokes in front of their store Saturday, and their son, Ethan, will assemble his John Deere toy tractor collection on a float for the parade.
And at some point, the Ramsey family may actually eat a sweet spear or two.
The name just stuck
To be fair, Mr. Ramsey and the rest of the festival supporters didn't just dream up this stuff about May's Lick being partial to asparagus. Not all of it, anyway.
Peggy Parker holds her son, Jack Segal, in the Asparagus Hall of Fame in May's Lick.|
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Over the years, the fields around May's Lick have been known for nurturing tobacco, corn, hemp and maybe a few illegal crops. But the story goes that nearly a century ago, a banker named Sanford Roff declared May's Lick the asparagus bed of Mason County. Considering townsfolk probably grew even less asparagus then than they do now, this slogan was more about marketing than the true state of agriculture. Mr. Hoff's theory was that asparagus grows in fertile soil and May's Lick is blessed with fertile although mostly clay-red ground.
So what Mr. Roff really meant was May's Lick was prime property, and it could be the asparagus bed of Mason County if people tried.
Of course, it was all P.R., says Peggy Parker.
Ms. Parker is the great-granddaughter of Mr. Roff and a descendant of settlers who moved to May's Lick from New Jersey in 1788. She's also the bold woman who planted the 550 asparagus plants last year on a grassy knoll overlooking her herd of white goats and a century-old farmhouse.
Her great-grandfather may have played loose with the facts, but Ms. Parker believes there's something to his fertility theory. A friend in nearby Dover planted asparagus the same time she did last year. But the Dover woman's asparagus never peeked out of the ground.
She asked me why her asparagus didn't take, Ms. Parker says. I told her it was simple: You didn't plant it in May's Lick.
Ronald Lawrence, manager of May's Lick Mill, claims you can find asparagus growing wild in fence rows around town. Really?
Jennifer Gleason, owner of Sunflower Sundries outside May's Lick, packs asparagus into jars for pickling while Lou Sauer cuts the spears to proper length.|
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Historical markers may be easier to find in May's Lick than wild asparagus. But again, it doesn't matter. Old man Roff planted a good one with that asparagus bed of Mason County tale. And it might just turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Festival roots young
The roots of the Asparagus Festival are more recent. Most credit the idea to an energetic woman an outsider who swept into May's Lick like a thunderstorm in the early 1990s to buy and renovate run-down buildings. She departed abruptly, leaving a few bruised feelings behind (which is why residents don't like to speak her name).
Memories of this woman make them almost as mad as sign and map-makers who spell their town's name Mayslick. (For the record, it is properly spelled May's Lick The town was named after John Mays, who discovered natural salt licks nearby.)
Anyway, that unmentionable woman did strike the creative spark that led to the first May's Lick Asparagus Festival in 1997. That year, the festival featured about 10 vendors, a band and a small parade.
It wasn't much, says merchant Robyn Jones, who wasn't involved in the first Asparagus Festival.
But now, she is so zealous for the cause her husband, Ken, thinks she's a little nuts. (But he's thankful he had to put up only five festival signs this year.) The couple owns a gas station, market and the Dinner Bell restaurant, set in one long building near the intersection of U.S. 68 and Ky. 324.
A gathering spot for everyone from insurance agents in suits to farmers in overalls, the Dinner Bell is famous for its crispy breaded pork tenderloin, tender minute steaks, made-from-scratch mashed potatoes, rich white gravy and long-simmered, faded-green beans. You won't find asparagus on the menu, though a fact that makes the disciple Ms. Jones blush a little.
IF YOU GO
What: May's Lick Asparagus Festival|
When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Downtown, May's Lick, Ky. From I-275 in Northern Kentucky, take Ky. 9 (AA Highway) east to Maysville (about 50 miles). Turn right at U.S. 68/62 and continue for 12 miles to May's Lick.
Miscellaneous: Asparagus cooking demonstrations begin at 11 a.m. in basement of Rose of Lima Church. Parade begins at 3 p.m. Taste of Asparagus begins at 6 p.m. in basement of Rose of Lima Church.
Information: Phone (606) 763-6823; e-mail email@example.com.
Jennifer Gleason's Sunflower Sundries pickled asparagus is crisp, mildly tart with hints of garlic and fresh dill flavors. The asparagus is available as whole spears in quart jars ($15); and as bite-sized chunks in quarts ($13) and pints ($9).|
Ms. Gleason sells her products at area arts and crafts festivals and at her farm. For a list of products and prices, see sunflowersundries.com. To order: (800) 259-8027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
My cooks just don't like doing asparagus, Ms. Jones explains, trying not to sound the least bit hypocritical. And if it sits too long on the steam table it turns mushy.
Fact is, those in May's Lick who do eat asparagus usually eat it only on special occasions maybe at dinner after church on Sundays with lots of melted butter. The idea of eating the green spears more often is still a foreign concept in the asparagus capital.
Jennifer Gleason is doing all she can to change that. A self-described wannabe hippie who moved from Ludlow to an old farm outside May's Lick 10 years ago, Ms. Gleason rivals Ms. Jones in her enthusiasm for the Asparagus Festival.
Under her Sunflower Sundries label, Ms. Gleason makes and sells soaps, spicy mustard and sweet jams. This time of year, Ms. Gleason spends much of her time in the basement, where the air is tart with the scent of hot vinegar. There, to the tunes of Sting and Paul Simon, she and helper, Lou Sauer, cut asparagus, pack it into tall, slender jars with green garlic shoots, dried cayenne peppers and fresh dill. Then they pour a 200-degree brine of white balsamic vinegar, water and sea salt into the jars to cook and pickle the asparagus.
I started pickling asparagus about five years ago as a way to preserve its crispness, says Ms. Gleason, who will just as soon snap a sweet, raw spear into her mouth as cook it.
She tends a small asparagus patch on her farm and tries to buy as much locally grown asparagus as she can for her pickled product. For the past few years, her major supplier has been Sam Barcellona, a talkative Sicilian-born truck farmer who lives on the fringe of Maysville.
I started growing asparagus because I like to eat it, Mr. Barcellona says.
His wife, Sandy, is a native of May's Lick who doesn't remember seeing asparagus patches in town as a child. Being married to a Sicilian, she does love to eat it, though even on non-special, other-than-Sunday occasions. Ms. Barcellona bakes it in a casserole, well-seasoned, under a blanket of shredded Parmesan.
Alas, the Barcellonas have sold their farm and will move to Phoenix by June. Ms. Gleason hopes the new owner will be just as eager to grow asparagus and sell it to her.
Asparagus takes center stage
Despite the fact May's Lick can't claim much homegrown asparagus and not even many asparagus aficionados, the sponsoring committee has done an admirable job putting together a series of events celebrating the noble green spears.
With a a budget of about $1,000, the committee has planned asparagus cooking demonstrations, asparagus growing seminars and an asparagus art contest climaxed by a Taste of Asparagus featuring crepes, soups and other asparagus dishes.
And there will be a Gus the Asparagus Guy wandering the streets in a funny green costume on the big day. They promise.
For the first time, the Asparagus Hall of Fame a whimsical collection of art, floral arrangements, pottery and other things devoted to asparagus will be housed in the lobby of the former Integra Bank, downtown. (You'll know because Bank is etched into the old building's forehead.) The bank, which closed in March and was promptly bought by the Lion's Club, once was owned by Sanford Roff, the man who started the May's Lick asparagus tradition.
We're not sure Mr. Roff would approve, but someone will hand out free, raw asparagus spears from the bank's drive-up window Saturday. We bet they don't do that at those festivals in Stockton or Michigan.
May's Lick residents are confident the Asparagus Festival will be bigger and better this year, but some are realistic, too.
We need people to come see our parade because we're all in it, says Ms. Jones, straight-faced. There's no one left.
Actually, the decline of May's Lick is no joke, says Dave Loney, a former firefighter who moved here from Long Island, N.Y., five years ago and has embraced its history and gentle pace.
The town is drying up, he says, frankly. And we don't want it to die.
So truth be told, this is a ruse of sorts, although benign. The people of May's Lick hope visitors will come to their Asparagus Festival Saturday, have a good time, see their little town and perhaps move there one day.
Who knows, maybe the new residents will even plant asparagus.
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cups finely diced asparagus
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
Combine sugar, eggs and oil and beat until creamy. Mix flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. Add dry ingredients alternately with diced asparagus into creamed mixture. Stir in chopped nuts and pour into greased 5-by-9-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until it tests done. Cool on rack before removing from pan. Makes 1 loaf.
May's Lick Asparagus Festival
Asparagus with Crispy Ginger
1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed
1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
Slice asparagus diagonally about 1/4-inch thick, leaving tips whole. Set aside. Slice ginger about í-inch thick. Set aside.
Melt butter in large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add sliced ginger and saute 1 minute or more, until crispy and golden brown. Add sliced asparagus and saute 2 minutes more, until tender. Drain off excess butter and season with salt and pepper. Makes about 2 side-dish servings.
Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables (HarperCollins; $32.50)
1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt
Lemon and orange wedges
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Put asparagus in roasting pan that holds spears closely together in single layer. Drizzle with olive oil and shake pan to evenly coat asparagus.
Roast asparagus in center of oven about 5 minutes. Shake pan to turn spears and roast another 5 minutes, until tender. Serve with salt and citrus wedges. Makes 2 servings.
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