Sparrow Grass


When I’m asked one of those silly hypothetical food questions—“What one food would you want to eat on a desert island?” or “What would you choose to eat for your last meal on death row?’’—I never have trouble making a decision. I’m an asparagus girl to the end.

Of course, asparagus is a cool-climate vegetable so it’s unlikely to grow on a desert island. And a prison chef would probably cook it until it was soggy. Nevertheless, I could eat even poorly cooked asparagus every day and be reasonably happy.

This time of year my favorite green vegetable is everywhere in the Pioneer Valley. As David Nussbaum recalled in Saveur magazine a few years ago, the Connecticut River Valley was the world’s asparagus capital between the 1930s and the 1970s.

Hadley Grass, as it was called, was shipped throughout the northeast and occasionally even overseas, where it was purportedly enjoyed by the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace.

When a blight hit the crop in the mid-1970s, Nussbaum wrote, asparagus in the area was hard hit. It took a while to find a blight-resistant strain, and many farmers moved on. Today it is mainly we locals who enjoy what remains of this formerly dominant crop.

Many western Massachusetts asparagus fans still use the term Hadley Grass, adapted from a popular nickname for the vegetable in the 1700s and 1800s, “sparrow grass.” Lexicographer John Walker wrote in 1791, “Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.”

I was seven when I first tasted freshly picked asparagus. My family was visiting one of my father’s graduate-school professors in Wisconsin. Like many Midwesterners the professor and his wife had a huge garden.

When I took my first bite of fresh-from-the-garden asparagus I was amazed at the flavor and texture. It tasted more like butter than any vegetable should. I kept eating—and eating—and eating.

I haven’t consumed that much asparagus at one sitting since then, but I still remember that visit with pleasure. And I celebrate asparagus season every year. One of my yearly ambitions (one spring I’ll fulfill it!) is to taste a unique asparagus treat served about an hour away from me.

A fabulous dairy in Hadley, Massachusetts, Flayvors of Cook Farm, makes asparagus ice cream at this time of year. I haven’t tried it myself, but every other flavor I’ve tried there has been freshly made and imaginatively conceived.

Every summer when we take my nephew Michael on his annual pilgrimage to the Eric Carle Museum we end up indulging ourselves at Cook Farm on the way home.

Just to get you going on your own asparagus journey I’ll be posting a few sparrow grass recipes, starting with this easy roasted grass formula. Don’t feel that you have to use any of them, however. Nothing beats this vegetable simply steamed or boiled, topped with a little butter and/or lemon juice.

Roasted Asparagus


1 pound asparagus, washed and trimmed
a generous splash of extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 handful feta cheese (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives (optional)


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In an ovenproof dish, toss together the asparagus, oil, salt, and pepper. Lay the oiled asparagus in the dish in a single layer.

Bake the asparagus for 6 to 10 minutes (depending on its thickness; I had fairly thick asparagus so I used the full 10 minutes), turning once.

If you want to use the feta, lay it on top of the asparagus after turning. It won’t melt, but it will become warm and soft.

Remove the roasted asparagus from the oven, and garnish it with chives if desired. Serves 3 to 4.

Mother Jan is happy that Sparrow Grass season is here!

Mother Jan is happy that Sparrow Grass season is here!

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5 Responses to “Sparrow Grass”

  1. Grad says:

    Asparagus is also my favorite veg, and roasting the the best way to cook it! When I was in college, every once in a while the cafeteria would serve a dish of toast topped with a slice of Canadian bacon, asparagus and finally cheddar cheese sauce over all. I think that would be what I would ask for as my last meal…and maybe a pizza on the side.

  2. Kathleen Wall says:

    In the seventeenth century they often called asparagus ‘spearage’. John Winthrop has aspargus on his bill of seeds in 1631. The earliest refence to ‘sparrowgrass’ (which is also what my dad always called it) is this:
    “A Sallet of Fennell.
    Take young Fennell, about a span long. in the Spring, tye it up in bunches as you do Sparragrass; when your skillet boyls, put in enough to make a dish; when it is boyled and drained, dish it up as you do Sparragrass, pour on Butter and Vinegar, and send it up.”
    – Rabisha, William. The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected.London: 1661.p. 97.
    We’ve been eating ours here in Plymouth for about 2 weeks, some of it is even begining to branch out. Cutting asparagus is the first sign of real spring.

  3. tinkyweisblat says:

    I ALWAYS learn from you folks at Plimoth Plantation! Thanks, Kathleen. And thank you, Grad. Not that I need the cheddar cheese sauce, but it does sound pretty yummy……

  4. Jim Littrell says:

    Louis brought home a bunch of asparagus today and I cooked it using your recipe, sans the goat cheese but including the chives (from my back yard). When we sat down to eat and he took a bite, he said this: “What did you do to these asparagus? They’re really good!” And so they were, just amazingly good. Thought you should know.


  5. Grad says:

    I made asparagus this Saturday according to your instructions. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it with feta, but I loved it. The leftovers I cut up and added to cooked and cooled couscous. Threw in some diced cherry tomatoes and left-over garbanzo beans, cilantro from the herb garden. I dressed it with lemon juice, lemon zest and a little olive oil, and served it as a chilled salad for Sunday lunch. Wow!