The supermarket industry standard stock number for asparagus is 4080. Which I know because they are the PLU (I can only guess this stands for "produce labeling unit," but I don't know for sure) numbers listed on the four thick purple rubber bands that once secured bunches of asparagus and that I now wear on my left wrist.
I have long avowed a strong distaste for purple as a color and am not much of an accessorizer, as fashion goes. I think because they are so wide, my rubber bands make me look kind of bad-ass, in a biker chick sort of way, but that isn't why I wear them either.
The Audrey Hepburn of the vegetable set, asparagus grows in tall, thin shoots above ground that seem to defy gravity. And, in a way, they do. When buffeted by wind or cold, asparagus stalks secrete a chemical that toughens their fibers, allowing them to remain standing straight, and causing, to the dismay of diners, stringy asparagus.
Cleaning my kitchen one morning, I absently slipped a rubber band from the previous night's asparagus onto my wrist. Later that morning, thinking about a friend whose husband was battling cancer, I glanced at my wrist and noticed the purple rubber band. I thought of the way asparagus is built to withstand the adversity of wind, and in its presence to become stronger. And that is what I wished on that little purple talisman for my friend.
Rubber bands are not as strong as asparagus or people, and the original one I wore has long since disintegrated. Now I wear four instead of one because, well, because four is just the best damned number out there. Some people have rosary beads, some rabbits' feet or lucky dollar bills. I've got my purple 4080s quietly reminding me, in the face of a headwind to straighten up and get tough.
(ed. note: I wrote this in February of 2001 for a food blog I had started called Tigerella. I think I gave up on the purple rubber bands sometime in 2002, but I still think about them and what they represented to me then and now. I tried, before posting this here, to confirm the central premise of this post, that asparagus produce lignin in response to wind, but I have not been able to. It seems like something I would have learned from Harold McGee's indispensible On Food and Cooking, but I couldn't find it there. Maybe I invented the connection. I'm not sure it matters.)