As a publisher of several food-focused titles, I’ve long been fascinated by the history of tableware, particularly when it serves a hyper-specific purpose. Proprietor of the New Orleans French Quarters’ Lucullus and Louisiana Cookin’ contributor, Patrick Dunne, delights us month after month with his musings on culinary antiques. His latest article on asparagus was no exception. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about the history of asparagus accoutrements as much as I did!
Stalking Asparagus: Civilizing the Tender Spears of Spring
By: Patrick Dunne
“The French,” my grandmother said, leaning forward and raising those pale eyebrows to indicate she was about to impart a great truth, “the French find it proper to eat perfectly cooked asparagus with their fingers.” Like many of her confidences, it was both enigmatic and complex. The regime of our family table seemed irreproachable, but still we ate the quasi-limp spears with a fork. This left me to question not only our ranking on the propriety scale, but also introduced a heretical doubt about whether we were enjoying perfect cooking.
Many years later, in my late twenties, I was invited to lunch at L’Espadon in Paris, and across that glittering faded pink room was a lady of incomparable elegance, delicately dipping her white spring asparagus in a butter sauce without soiling her fingers. I was transfixed with awe and melancholy, realizing that my grandmother, as always, had been right.
When humankind first took to eating these delicately colored shoots, once botanically associated with the lily, we do not know. Tomb paintings indicate that the Egyptians offered bundles of asparagus to their gods, but whether they also ate them is uncertain. We do know those unashamed gluttons, the Romans, were great asparagus lovers, and the vegetable is mentioned by almost every classical writer on nature. Pliny brags on an asparagus stalk that weighed over a quarter of a pound, without leaving a hint of how tough it must have been. Apicius, mysterious author of a late Roman cookbook, leaves us a recipe for asparagus casserole that reminds me of those ghastly experiments in country club cooking that afflicted the mid-twentieth-century American palate.
Oddly enough, asparagus was one of those popular foods that fell through the kitchen cracks after the collapse of the classical world. Fortunately Islamic preservationists, who kept alive most of the intellectual heritage of Rome, reintroduced asparagus to Spain and Italy. Nevertheless, throughout the Middle Ages it was still mostly monks who cultivated small crops for medicine, while most of the asparagus patches went wild and neglected until they were rediscovered by a few late-Renaissance cooks in Italy. It was really not until well into the 17th century that asparagus re-entered the culinary repertoire of France.
Memoirs of the period reveal it was still a rare dish during the reign of the Sun King. Louis XIV, however, a great lover of his vegetables, succeeded in cajoling La Quintinie, royal supervisor of the potager, to figure out how to grow it year-round. Eventually the best asparagus was grown outside Paris near Argenteuil, and France went on to become the largest producer of the vegetable in Europe.
The question remained how to eat it. Despite the widespread use of the table fork by the 18th century, Hannah Glasse, the last word in food and decorum in Georgian England, was still advising her readers in The Art of Cookery (1747) that for eating asparagus no good alternative had been found to the fingers, and that the fork was practically useless. Hardly a generation later, the French, or at least Parisians on the eve of the revolution, were using implements. That cranky old Benjamin Franklin, much beloved by the ladies of France, scandalized them by ignoring his fork and taking up his spears with his fingers. The triumph of table tools was near at hand and being felt at every repast. Asparagus tongs, cradles, specific plates, and individual pincers would come and largely go over the next two hundred years, but the popularity of the plant endured and seems unlikely to suffer the exile it felt after the fall of Rome.