"I stick to asparagus which still seems to inspire gentle thought."
--Charles Lamb, British essayist, in "Grace Before Meat"

"Have you ever seen Spode eat asparagus?"
"Revolting. It alters one's whole conception of Man as Nature's last word!"

--P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938

"C'est, sur un cou qui, raide, émerge
D'une fraise empesée idem,
Une face imberbe au cold-cream,
Un air d'hydrocéphale asperge."
--Pierrots, by Uruguayan-born French poet Jules Laforge, which, roughly translated, describes the conventional clown face as "it pops up, stiff, on a neck emerging/likewise from a stiff starched ruff,/a beardless cold-creamed face/with the air of a white asparagus tip.

"Ambassadors cropped up like hay, Prime Ministers and such as they Grew like asparagus in May, And dukes were three a penny"
--W. S. Gilbert in The Gondoliers

"But oh surprise, oh disappointment! And oh misery! The prelate rose from his knees with empty hands...The famed asparagus was made of wood."
--Jean Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste
(see infra for the whole story)

§ Home § Search § FoodTales § Any comments?


(Asparagus officinalis)

Native to Eurasia, asparagus is a member of the lily-of-the-valley family and is unique in having no leaves, but rather phylloclades, delicate photosynthetic branches.

Before it was used as a food, it was considered a cure for heart trouble, dropsy, and toothaches. It was even supposed to prevent bee stings.

It has long been known for a peculiar side effect; as learned French scientist and physician Louis Lémery wrote in his 1702 Traité des alimens: "Sparagrass eaten to Excess sharpen the Humours and heat a little; ...They cause a filthy and disagreeable Smell in the Urine, as every Body knows." Actually, the smell arises from the secretion of its odorous methyl mercaptan--and, as every Body knows, it takes no "Excess" of eating to provoke the smell.

Emperor Augustus of Rome was said to order executions to be carried out "quicker than you can cook asparagus." Such is the importance of not overcooking this delicate vegetable.

Much later, in Hamburg, it was said that the main melody of Johannes Brahms Third Symphony was inspired by a meal of fresh asparagus and Champagne.

Asparagus was brought to the United States by early colonists, who called it "sparrow grass."

Healthwise, it is low in calories (6 spears are equal to about 25 calories only); high in fiber; and an excellent vegetable source of protein as well as folate and vitamins A and C.

* * *

VII. The Asparagus

One time it was reported to Monsignor Courtois de Quincey, bishop of Belley, that an asparagus tip of incredible size had poked up its head in one of the beds of his vegetable garden.
Immediately his whole household hurried to the spot to verify the news, for even in episcopal palaces it is amusing to have something to do.
The report was found to be neither false nor exaggerated. The plant had already broken through the crust of earth, and its tip could plainly be seen. It was rounded, gleaming, and finely patterned, and gave promise of a girth greater than a handspan.
Everyone talked excitedly of this horticultural triumph, and it was agreed that to the Bishop alone belonged the right to garner it. The neighboring cutler was ordered to make immediately a knife appropriate to the great occasion.
During the following days the asparagus increased in grace and in beauty; its progress was slow but continuous, and before long its watchers could see the white part where the edible portion of this vegetable ends.
The time for harvesting thus indicated, a good dinner was first served, and the actual operation took place after a postprandial stroll.
Then it was that Bishop Courtois advanced, armed with the official knife, kneeled down solemnly, and concentrated on cutting from its root the haughty plant, while the whole episcopal entourage seethed with impatience to examine the fibers and texture of the phenomenon.
But oh surprise, oh disappointment! And oh misery! The prelate rose from his knees with empty hands...The famed asparagus was made of wood.
This practical joke, which was perhaps carried a little too far, was the work of Canon Rosset, a native of Saint-Claude, who had wonderful skill as a turner, and painted most admirably as well. He had made the false plant a perfect copy of reality, had buried it secretly, and then raised it a little every day in imitation of natural growth.
Bishop Courtois did not know quite how to take this mystifying prank (which indeed it was); then, seeing the hilarity already spreading over the faces of his household, he smiled. His smile was followed by a general explosion of truly Homeric laughter: the evidence of the crime was borne away, without bothering about the criminal, and for that evening, at least, the carved asparagus tip was admitted to the honors of exhibition in the drawing room.