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Asparagus and Poetry Meet at Empire’s Asparagus Festival

EMPIRE, MI – 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.

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 two miles south of town. Named for an ill-fated schooner that briefly served as the village school after running aground on the beach in 1865, Empire is best known as an artsy summer resort in the heart of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Still, asparagus is an opportunistic vegetable, and every May its perky green spears start showing up in fields, ditches, meadows and hillsides all over this part of the region. That’s all it took for the citizens of Empire — all 400 of them — to devise a celebration. (They already have a festival honoring a big anchor that was recovered from the bottom of the lake in 1977.)

“It’s mainly just an excuse to get out and enjoy ourselves,” says festival organizer Paul Skinner, a British expat who owns an antique store in the town. “We don’t really need a big reason to have music or eat.”

But the festivities do have their earnest save-the-world side, too. Like many other communities in the fruit-growing region around Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, Empire is a hotbed of advocacy for small-scale local agriculture and regional cuisine. Other towns in the area celebrate cherries, wines and wild mushrooms; Empire opted for the humble asparagus.

This year’s festival, the sixth, will be held May 15-16. In addition to the asparagus poetry contest, it will include such events as a 5K “Kick Ass-paragus” Fun Run/Walk, an asparagus recipe contest and cook-off, a tour of local art galleries and studios, the making of asparagus-garnished parade hats, the annual Asparagus Parade, an afternoon concert and dance, and a massive asparagus-based food, wine and beer tasting that will include such treats as asparagus focaccia, asparagus pizza, asparagus croissants, asparagus scones, asparagus bratwurst, asparagus slaw, asparagus & morel risotto, and asparagus beer. (Yes, it’s true – asparagus beer from the too-creative-for-their-own-good brewers at Traverse City’s Right Brain Brewery.

Empire is the headquarters of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a breathtaking symphony of water, sky and towering sand dunes – some as much as 500 feet high – on the Lake Michigan shoreline of the Leelanau Peninsula. Part of the national park system since 1972, Sleeping Bear is one of America’s most profoundly beautiful landscapes: a 64-mile curve of beaches, coves, islands, forests, meadows and lakes. Its grandeur can be viewed from well-placed overlooks along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive — but it’s even better to see the park close up and personal by visiting its fascinating museums, hiking its trails or even taking a ferryboat ride to the unspoiled Manitou Islands.

In most years, the Empire Asparagus Festival coincides with the arrival of spring blossoms in the cherry orchards of the nearby Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas — one of America’s most impressive (and least-known) floral displays.
It’s quite a spectacle itself: 2.6 million blooming cherry trees climbing the steep glacial ridges like battalions of tidy white clouds, their soft lines contrasting with bright new grass, acres of yellow dandelions and the cobalt blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay.

May is also prime bird-watching time. Thanks to its coastal location along the northern shore of Lake Michigan and its many inland lakes, marshes and ponds, this region is also a favorite destination for thousands of migratory birds. Like their human counterparts, some of these visitors are only stopping for a few days of relaxation and refreshment while others settle down for the whole summer.

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