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When Life Hand You Lemon Grass

The Fragrant and Elegant Asian Herb Drives Some to Larceny and Others to Fresno

November 11, 2001|DAVID LANSING

If you really want to hear about it, I suppose it all started several years ago, when I took some cold medicine because I thought I was coming down with something, fell asleep on the train to Berlin and ended up in Hanover. It was raining, and the train back to Berlin wasn't due for a couple of hours, and the last thing I felt like doing, to be honest, was sitting around a damp German Bahnhof, staring at a bunch of drab businessmen holding wet fedoras in their laps and nervously tapping their fingers on the wooden benches. So I thought maybe I'd just hang out at a restaurant for an hour or so and have a bowl of soup. This was in April, which is only important because springtime in Germany is like National Spargel Season or something. Spargel is what the Germans call asparagus, and there isn't a restaurant in the whole country that doesn't make a big deal out of Spargel during the spring. They serve it with hollandaise, they stuff it into chicken breasts, they make soup out of it--you name it.

I found a restaurant near the train station called Sawaddi, which turned out to be Thai. I can get by with my German when I have to, but I wasn't having much luck with the waiter, whose grasp of the language seemed even worse than mine. "Spargel? Suppe?" He became agitated and pointed to a green chalkboard across the room, so I said, "Sure, that would be fine."

What I ended up getting was the night's special, which was a big four-course meal. Everything was made with lemon grass. Lemon grass soup, lemon grass asparagus, lemon grass chicken. Even the dessert was made with lemon grass. But the best thing was the asparagus. They took lemon grass leaves, tied them into knots and steamed them with the white Spargel, serving it with lemon grass butter. Between the cold medicine and a couple glasses of wine, I guess you could say I went a little crazy. I ended up ordering three more plates of asparagus with lemon grass. I think the waiter was starting to worry about me--while I was eating the last plateful, he stood next to another waiter, and the two of them stared at me as if I might eat the napkin or steal the silverware.

I don't want to use that experience as an excuse, but it's probably why I was driving slowly through Westminster in the middle of the night three months later, covertly looking for lemon grass, and why I ended up leaving my shovel behind in an unknown flower bed when a dog started barking and several lights came on in a pink stucco house. I decided I probably ought to get out of there before the dog got me or the cops showed up. Technically, I wasn't a thief. Before the dog started yapping and before I'd even started trying to dig up a little clump of lemon grass from the front yard, I'd left $20 tucked inside a bank deposit envelope beneath a little stone Buddha on the porch.

These days, you can walk into almost any supermarket and buy all the lemon grass you want, but there was a time when it wasn't so easy to get. Back then, I'd get a craving and drive to Orange County's Little Saigon just to buy lemon grass at the 99 Ranch Market. During these trips I noticed that a lot of people in the neighborhood grew the stuff in their yards, which is how I came up with the idea of "borrowing" a clump or two.

Shortly after, I found a nursery 50 miles east of Fresno that sold the herb in three-inch pots. "There are fields and fields of the stuff all along the highway from Fresno to our nursery," said V.J. Billings, the owner of Mountain Valley Growers, when I told her how thankful I was to locate her because I couldn't find any lemon grass in Southern California. "It's like a weed here."

I said I'd heard that it has been used in South America for centuries. I read once that native cultures of the Amazon use it as a contraceptive. She thought that Southeast Asian refugees, many of whom settled around Fresno in the early '70s, introduced it to California.

Like a nervous new father, I called her the day my two seedlings arrived to ask what I was supposed to do with them. Some people might be annoyed by such questions, but Billings, who sells more than 300 herbs, loves weird plants the way some people love old cars. Lemon grass thrives in fertile soil and, like all grasses, needs a lot of water, particularly during the growing season.

"It'll grow fast," Billings warned, "but don't start to harvest it until it gets several feet tall and starts to put out new pups." Then what do you do with it? "Cut the woody outer leaves off until you get just the bulb--like the white part of a scallion. That's the good stuff."

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