As the snow melts, even in Minnesota, and daylight lingers into evening, people who like to eat with the seasons know what's coming: asparagus.
"Asparagus means the beginning of spring. It's spring!" says Nora Pouillon, chef and founder of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C. Later this month, she'll revise her menu, and it will certainly include asparagus with salmon, and asparagus soup.
It's an elegant vegetable, Pouillon says, and unique: "Sweet and bitter at the same time."
Taste, however, is only the surface of asparagus's eccentricities. And since this is the web, here's a list of them: five little-known facts about this iconic spring vegetable, from the botanical to the economic. (I won't explore the funny smell, though. That's old news.)
1. That green spear on your plate wanted to be a fern.
Botanically speaking, asparagus is an oddity among vegetables. First of all, farmers only plant a new asparagus crop every 10 or 15 years, and they don't start with seeds. Instead, farmers plant "crowns," which are the roots of 1-year-old asparagus plants. Those roots will grow underground, year after year, and every spring, when the weather gets warm, the roots will send up green spears. If the spears aren't harvested, they will turn into big and bushy ferns.
2. Asparagus spears grow ridiculously fast.
Scott Walker, president of the world's biggest asparagus seed company (Walker Brothers, of Pittsgrove, N.J.), says that he's heard that on really hot days, asparagus can grow an inch per hour. But he's never actually measured them. During harvest season, farmers struggle to stay ahead of the growing spears. Each field has to be harvested every day, and sometimes even twice a day.
"I remember one year, it went from cold to hot, and it looked like the hair on a dog's back out there in the field. It was everywhere, and we could not keep up," Walker says.
After about six or eight weeks, farmers stop harvesting and let them grow wild. The plant needs to grow into a fern to capture energy from the sun and store it in the root for the next growing season.
3. Asparagus plants are either male or female.
The female plants make berries, containing seeds. The male plants just make flowers, containing pollen. But both of them produce spears.
4. America imports close to 90 percent of its asparagus.
It wasn't always this way. As recently as 1989, the U.S. grew more asparagus than it consumed, and exported slightly more than it imported. In those days, asparagus consumption followed a predictable pattern: California's fields kicked off the asparagus season, followed by Washington, New Jersey and Michigan.
But since then, imports have boomed, while U.S. production has been shrinking. The trend has accelerated in the last 10 years. You can now get fresh asparagus all winter long, mostly from Peru. Scott Walker has seen those operations. "They will harvest in the morning. That night it's on a plane. The next morning it's here in the U.S.," he says.
In early spring, an even bigger wave of imports arrives from Mexico. It's making life miserable for asparagus growers in California. "I call it a marketing train wreck," says Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission. "There's a huge supply on the market, right when we're coming on with our new crop. The price is extremely depressed. We haven't seen prices this low in years."
The basic problem for California's growers is simply that harvesting asparagus takes a lot of hands, and labor is much more expensive here than in Mexico.
5. Right now, California's asparagus growers are slicing up their crop in the field.
Many of these farmers are driving through their fields with sharp metal disks that cut off the asparagus spears. "That delays production anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks," says Angulo.
By then, the farmers are hoping that the flood of Mexican production will be done, and prices will be higher. But this year's problems are likely to accelerate the exodus of farmers from asparagus production. American farmers are growing only a third as much of this vegetable as they did 20 years ago, even though American consumers are eating more of it.
A woman in Texas likely infected her female partner with HIV through sexual contact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.
The case offers the strongest evidence to date that HIV transmission between women, although rare, is possible.
"There were cases where it was suspected, but not all the pieces were there to say it so clearly as this one," says Patrick Sullivan, an epidemiologist at Emory University who wasn't involved in the study.
The circumstances in this case were unique, a spokeswoman for the CDC tells Shots. The couple frequently had sexual contact without a barrier and exchanged blood through rough sex with toys.
The case is a good reminder that HIV can spread during all types of sexual interactions, Sullivan says. "Anytime there's intimate contact — even through the use of sex toys — prevention measures should be taken, especially when there's a chance of blood contact."
The HIV virus can be found in vaginal fluid and menstrual blood. But it's been tough for researchers to determine the risk of infection between women. In many cases other transmission routes, such as intravenous drug use and heterosexual intercourse, can't be ruled out.
These other risk factors weren't present in the current case, a CDC team wrote in the current issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The women, both in their 40s, were in a monogamous relationship with each other for six months prior to HIV transmission. One of the women had been HIV positive since 2008. Her partner had no history of drug use. And she hadn't gotten tattoos or blood transfusions for five years prior to the infection.
When the partner tested positive for HIV in 2012, the team at the CDC analyzed the DNA of the viruses from each women. The gene sequences almost matched up perfectly.
"That gives really strong evidence that the women were sharing the virus — that it moved from infected partner to uninfected partner," Sullivan says.
"This type of transmission is rare," says Amy Lansky, a deputy director at the CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. "But still, it's important for discordant lesbian couples — when one is HIV positive and the other is negative — to get medical counseling and HIV treatment."
Among the latest developments related to the crisis in Ukraine:
— "The United States and the European Union will respond on Monday with a 'serious series of steps' against Russia if a referendum on Ukraine's Crimea region goes ahead on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday. Kerry told a congressional hearing he hoped to avoid such steps, which include sanctions, through discussions with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, in London on Friday." (Voice of America)
— "Russia has begun military exercises, involving more than 8,000 troops, close to the border with Ukraine. The defense ministry in Moscow confirmed that artillery such as rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons would also be involved in the exercises. They come at a time of high tension ahead of Crimea's referendum on Sunday on whether to join Russia." (BBC News)
— "In an unusually robust and emotionally worded speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of 'catastrophe' unless Russia changes course. 'We would not only see it, also as neighbors of Russia, as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union's relationship with Russia,' she said in a speech in parliament. 'No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.' " (Reuters)
Less ominous news: In what he said might be a "big step forward," the chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe announced that Russia now supports the idea of an OSCE mission in Ukraine, including Crimea, to monitor the situation. But, as Reuters also reported, an OSCE team that tried to enter Crimea on Thursday said it was turned away by armed men.
Need a refresher on what this crisis is all about?
As we've previously said, Crimea has been the focus of attention as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych have spread.
Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:
We've recapped what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month this way:
"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."
It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea.
Many of us have those friends who insist that they're coffee connoisseurs and drink exclusively drip brews. But really, there aren't many academic programs that train people in the taste and science of coffee.
That might all change soon. The University of California, Davis, recently founded a Coffee Center dedicated to the study of the world of java. This week, the center held its first research conference.
"There aren't a lot of things that so many people consume several times a day, every day," says J. Bruce German, who directs of the Foods for Health Institute at Davis. But given how much coffee people all over the world chug, there's a surprising lack of academic research on the topic, German says.
There's a lot we still don't fully understand about coffee, German says. What's the best way to treat the beans while they're still green? What's the most environmentally friendly way to roast them? And why are we so obsessed with how it smells?
And since the university is already well known for its winemaking and beer brewing programs, German says coffee seems like a natural next step.
The idea grew out of a seminar called "Design of Coffee," developed by two professors in the chemical engineering department.
"It's basically a non-mathematical introduction to chemical engineering," says Bill Ristenpart, one of the course developers. The idea was to illustrate some of the basic principals of chemical engineering though the process of making the perfect cup of Joe.
But the concept blew up. What started out as a small seminar grew into a class of 170. More than 300 students have signed up to take the course next quarter.
The chemistry of coffee is only one aspect of the new center.
During this week's conference, Ristenpart presented a sample curriculum that included a range of courses to nurture students' palettes, as well as their technical know-how. "One of the classes would definitely be on the chemical and physical properties of milk," he says, and how it interacts with coffee.
"The program is in the nascent stages right now," he says.
For now, the center will offer classes, but not degrees. The next step is to reach out to the coffee industry and raise funds to expand the program, Ristenpart says. If all goes well, Davis might start offering a major in coffee science within the next few years.
Davis' Coffee Center isn't the first research institute dedicated to the magic beans. The World Coffee Research program at Texas A & M University focuses on the agricultural aspects of coffee. Ristenpart says he envisions the program at Davis will delve more deeply into coffee processing.
"There are more than a thousand identified molecules that give rise to the unique flavor of coffee," Ristenpart says. "Nobody has turned the full might of academic research on it — yet."
So the next time your friend starts going off about how he's a "coffee expert," you can say "Oh, yeah? Well, did you major in coffee?"
With members of the House and Senate scrapping over a Ukraine aid bill, Republicans say a magic bullet could break the logjam.
It has nothing to do with the former Soviet republic, its ability to withstand Russia's military intervention in Crimea, or this weekend's referendum in the Ukrainian territory.
It has everything to do with conservatives' fury at the IRS, which they say has waged a partisan, and unconstitutional, war against President Obama's opponents.
First, there was the grindingly slow, intrusive scrutiny the agency gave to Tea Party and other groups seeking tax-exempt status as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. The IRS gave similar treatment to liberal groups, though not nearly as many of them. And then, last year, the IRS proposed new rules that would make it harder for groups to veer from their social welfare missions into electoral politics. Conservatives call it a vendetta targeting them. Then again, liberal 501(c)(4)s are against the proposed rules, too.
This matters — to American politicians if not beleaguered Ukrainians — because social welfare groups are the hot item in campaign finance; they get to raise unlimited contributions from donors they don't have to disclose. So far, conservatives have a big advantage in this realm of secretly funded politics.
But back to Ukraine. The financial package for Ukraine itself has strong support in Congress. But Democrats want to add another element, boosting the lending power of the International Monetary Fund. Many Republicans never liked the IMF, but they might be persuaded to go along on the bill if it also includes a provision forcing the IRS to stop work on its new regulations.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday, "To get it passed on the floor, the (c)(4) issue is going to have to be dealt with."
He said House Speaker John Boehner is "not going to bring it up on the House floor unless the (c)(4) issue is dealt with. But then maybe those tied together is what pulls through the IMF piece."
It may also be what pulls through the Ukraine aid, which was the original point.