Asparagus Meets Poetry During Festival in Empire, Michigan
Small town celebrates spring with annual festival honoring the humble asparagus.
In keeping with tradition, a participant in Michigan's annual Empire Asparagus Parade sports a colorful paper hat garnished with stalks of fresh-picked asparagus. This year's festival is set for May 15-18.
courtesy Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau
Empire, Michigan – After a six-month winter, the arrival of spring can make people do strange things.
How else to explain the literary impulse that comes over residents of this tiny Lake Michigan coastal village every year when they see the first brave spears of spring asparagus pushing up from the sandy earth?
Each May, residents of Empire dress up in asparagus costumes and parade down their short three-block downtown. They hold huge asparagus cook-offs featuring everything from soups and soufflés to casseroles and crepes. They sing, dance, compete in athletic events and consume respectable quantities of beer and wine. But the spotlight event of the two-day Empire Asparagus Festival is the annual “Ode to Asparagus” competition, where local bards outdo each other in paying homage to this beloved vegetable. This year’s festival, the sixth, will be held May 15-16.
Consider, for example, the eloquence of Tom Ulrich, assistant superintendent of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, who won the contest a year or two back:
I stand over the bed and imagine you arising
Green and slender, uncurling towards me,
Stretching with the pleasant ache of carbon, newly fixed.
It's been nearly a year since I've seen your face
And a long winter since I've tasted anything that astonished me
The way you always seem to, no matter how you're dressed.
The iron clouds skid by, hiding the sun in their pockets.
In this cold, flat light my fingers are pallid and numb,
Trembling until your emergence proves everything anew.
I blow into my cupped hands,
And wait for you.
Was ever a side dish so sweetly serenaded?
After California and Washington, Michigan is the nation’s third-largest producer of commercial asparagus, a crop worth some $29 million a year to the state. But Empire doesn’t really have what you’d call an asparagus industry – just one local farmer named Harry Norconk, who has a 240-acre operation about 2 miles south of town.
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