Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hairy Beans and Liquid Asparagus

One thing about holiday feasting around here is that it's never going to be too good. I was reminded of this just recently when I unexpectedly got a big check. Oh, sure, I was going to spend most of it on rent and other silly necessities, but there's always an element of celebration when you find a wad of money you hadn't been expecting sitting in your account.

So I went to the Italian wholesale place to replenish the supplies of good olive oil and professional-grade pasta and discovered that it was salsiccie day. Now, Americans can just go into the supermarket and buy "Italian sausage," but it's a distinct rarity around here, so I got a kilo. The rest of the stuff I wanted was also there, and I got off with only €50 worth of damage, 13 of which was the sausage.

When I got back home, I tossed all but two links into the freezer and, with the super-cheap white cannellini beans I'd gotten, I realized that I could take two of these fresh links and make pastafazool, a kind of bean, sausage, and pasta stew. But...what to have with it?

Well, the local supermarket was in the throes of holiday fever, and lo and behold, they had green asparagus, another rarity in a land where only white asparagus, fibrous and devoid of any vitamin content, is considered fit to eat. True, it was €3.99, but I was celebrating! So I tossed it into my basket and got the rest of what I needed and went to the checkout.

Back home, everything went well. I cut the sausage into coins and fried them, prepared the tomato-based stew base/sauce, and set it all bubbling and perfuming the house. I was looking forward to this meal, after which I'd sit and read a good George Pelecanos book I'd found on sale. Time to start steaming the asparagus, since I was already melting butter and infusing it with garlic.

Now, the way this asparagus is sold, it's wrapped in paper right up to the tips. I don't know why this is, but the packer in Greece does it this way. Sometimes it hides old stems, but on the rare occasions when I've found it, there have never been any problems. So I popped the paper and found...decay. I'm talking about greyish stems, oozing liquid, and a stench.

I kicked myself. The reason I'd seen the asparagus in the first place was that it was prominently displayed. Under lights. Hot lights.

And I knew about this, and should have realized right from the start that there was going to be something wrong. I was just so euphoric about what the rest of the day had brought that I zoned it out completely. And it's not like I haven't bought bad vegetables there before.

Germans don't eat much greenery, at least not in this part of the country, where it's historically been hard to raise. Around here, there are all kinds of root vegetables, and there are pumpkins in season, but a lot of the other stuff comes from Italy, Spain, and Greece. Mid-winter there's always a crop of green beans from Egypt, which I think is cool, and on the rare occasion you can get authentic Haas avocados, the only ones I'll consider, they come from Kenya. But the stores do carry a limited number of green vegetables, and I, of course, buy as many as I can. I'm just not into big radishes or parsnips.

But, although I'm completely certain that the stuff arrives from these exotic lands in decent shape, the idiots who run the supermarket here don't seem to get it. Okay, the stuff's not cooled at all, which is one big mistake, but needn't be fatal. But the bright halogen lights? They're cooking them right on the shelves. Once, you could buy as much or as little as you wanted, which meant that you could actively reject the rotted stuff, but no longer: everything gets packed in these plastic panniers, and then wrapped in cellophane. Then, under the bright lights, moisture evaporates from the vegetables and sits on them. And this, in turn, encourages mold and rot. Many is the pannier of 500g of green beans I've bought, only to discover that, in the center, they've turned to a black liquid mass surrounded by other beans sprouting white fuzzy hair.

I could have taken the asparagus back, if I'd wanted to walk back to the store, if it weren't past 8pm when the store closes, and if I'd thought I'd have a chance in hell of getting anything out of it but grief. But you have to factor in the German "the customer is always wrong" attitude. You should have looked more closely before you bought it. How do we know you bought this here? How do we know you bought this today? Anyway, the guy who could take care of this, if you're not lying, which you almost certainly are, isn't here.

Instead, I carefully trimmed the tips and ate what remained of the 500g bundle as buttered asparagus tips. I don't remember what they tasted like, because I was so pissed off at myself for not realizing I was about to be ripped off when I bought them in the first place.

At least Pelecanos delivered.


Marie Javins said...

Wow, how incredibly disgusting. Nice description, though.

PJebsen said...

Hi Ed,

It's a small world! ;-)

We met several times - in Austin/TX, during PopKomm in Cologne, and at the Hotel Berlin (during a George Clinton tour).

I'm currently based in Hamburg/Germany, but I'm also sharing an apartment with my girlfriend in Berlin. I'm mentioning this because one of my favorite Italian food stores is about 30 seconds away from my Berlin apartment: Salumeria da Pino, Windscheidstrasse 20, 10627 Berlin (in Charlottenburg, right at the corner of Stuttgarter Platz -

I had an interesting VIP sighting at that place: A few days after the most recent Iraq war broke out, Joschka Fischer (who was Germany's Foreign Secretary back then) stood in line at the cash register in front of me, discussing the quality of freshly imported Italian olive oils with Pino ... ;-)

PJebsen said...
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PJebsen said...
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belledame222 said...


Cyn said...

Oh, Ed. The same thing happens regularly at my closest market. The secret is to walk in the back and say, "Yo, will you bring me some of the cilantro/parsley/lettuce/etc that's NOT rotten?" and they all go duh, do-doop, do-doop, and get some from the cooler.

Apparently, they just never put the fresh stuff out until all the rotten stuff has been purchased. Who buys the rotten veggies, I'll never know. The upside is, I can ALWAYS get perfectly ripe avocados there.