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Food in the 'Hood

Asparagus: Scents and Non-scents

An early hint of spring, the asparagus shoots break through the soil. The delicate vegetable, a member of the lily family that includes onions, leeks, and other plants, gives us a seasonal joy. Now more widely enjoyed, asparagus was once the province of wealthy and leisured individuals.

The Romans were passionate about asparagus. They plucked shoots from the wild and, over time, domesticated the plant. In the process, the once thin and fragile stalks became fatter and thicker. The Roman enthusiasm could lead to excess. On seeing a grotesquely plump variety, the Roman naturalist Pliny was revolted. “Now we see artificial kinds, and at Ravenna, three stalks weigh a pound,” he wrote. “What monstrous gluttony.” Pliny preferred a pristine asparagus. “Nature made asparagus grow wild.”

The Romans ate asparagus with zest. They savored briny spears from stalks that had been steeped in a salt and vinegar solution. Young sprouts were delicious in a salad. A simple and enjoyable way of eating them, the author Columnella reported, was flavored with salt, pepper, and butter and dressed with the juice of citron, an ancestor of the lemon. But the appeal of asparagus was more than culinary. Its value as a laxative and diuretic, Pliny emphasized, made the vegetable “among the most useful foods.” Asparagus, especially the water it was cooked in, he added, made a good aphrodisiac.

Wherever Roman legions marched, asparagus followed. The plant was sown along the Mediterranean and then in France. It later spread to England and to other parts of Northern Europe. Emperors dispatched special fleets to transport the plant to distant regions of their realms. The rulers spared no expense in preserving the early rising vegetable. Chariots and fast runners carrying asparagus bundles sped off from the Tigris River for the Alps. The stalks were then frozen in the snow for six months, after which they were returned to Rome for the pleasure of revelers at the Feast of Epicurus.

Asparagus spawned a lively lore. The saying, “quicker than you can cook asparagus,” began with Emperor Augustus, who reportedly uttered it when ordering the immediate execution of one of his subjects. An amusing story about Julius Caesar’s way of eating asparagus was also often repeated: When he took it with olive oil instead of butter, the leader became the butt of jokes.

During the Middle Ages, asparagus was largely invisible except in convent and monastery gardens. The fathers used it as a diuretic. It was rediscovered during the Renaissance, when Europeans tried to emulate the Romans by planting the vegetables they loved. During the 16th century, herbalists like John Gerard introduced the plant to their readers: “The manured or garden Sperage, hath at his first rising out of the ground thicke tender shoots very soft and brittle, of the thickness of the greatest swans quill, in taste like the green bean.”

Gradually, asparagus began to appear in markets. In one English town, “the poor people due gather the buddes or young shoots, and sell them.” Hawkers peddled asparagus on English street corners.

The vegetable also acquired a new name. The Romans borrowed their Latin name asparagus from the Greek “asparagos,” a word that applied broadly to all tender, young shoots. By the 17th century, a new term had been conjured up. The English writer Samuel Pepys recounts “bringing with me from Fenchurch Street a hundred of Sparrowgrass.” Two centuries later, asparagus reentered the English language.

The aristocratic classes were the most avid consumers of asparagus. In their infatuation, they mimicked their idols, the imperial Romans. French medical professor Michael Bicais compared his contemporaries’ obsession with the Roman lust for the stalk. Asparagus “obliged the ancients to ferret them out greedily, and to attach a price to them, or to make them into something divine.”

Royals demanded a constant supply of this “delicac[y] of princes” for their tables. King Louis XIV could feast on asparagus in December thanks to the “hot beds” in the palace gardens. At lavish gatherings, the nobility banqueted on rich asparagus dishes. A 17th century Italian recipe for an asparagus pie was an example of this court cuisine. Flavored with cinnamon, rose water, raisins, figs, and ground almonds, the pastry made abundant use of sugar, cream, and egg yolks.

The Europeans, like the Romans, had faith in asparagus’ healing powers. They read the writings of the second century Greek physician Galen, who lived in Rome, and subscribed to his gospel. Asparagus, he judged, was “healing, cleansing. . . . It relieves inflammation of the stomach, relaxes the bowels, makes urine, and helps the weak.”

Botanists agreed. When the Dutch scientist Linnaeus was classifying the vegetable, he called it “asparagus officinalis” of the dispensary.

The legend of asparagus’ sexual powers persisted. Some prurient commentators warned readers of its dangers. “The decoction of the roots boiled in wine . . . stirred up bodily lust in man or woman,” herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote. As late as the 19th century, food writer Rebecca Rupp commented that girls schools in France would not allow their charges to eat the vegetable for fear of encouraging their sexual appetites.

Asparagus had one major liability —- the distinctive scent it induced in the urine. It “affects the urine with a foetid smell . . . and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys,” one observer remarked. Its scent, some said, could even reveal a romantic liaison. The “unpleasant odor,” French writer Stanislas Martin quipped, “more than once betrayed an illicit dinner.” Proust surprisingly was an exception to this chorus of disgust. The intoxicating smell, he said, turned “my chamber-pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.” Apostles of asparagus believed its odor had a healthful purpose. It was the body’s way of purging “bad humors,” a means of purification.

The preoccupation with the foul smell led to the discovery of the first amino acid in 1806. Searching for the cause of the odor, two scientists distilled asparagus juice into a concentrate they called aspargene. When they gave it to human subjects, the experimenters concluded that the substance was not the culprit. The people detected no smell in their urine. The latest thinking is that when we eat asparagus, a sulfur compound in the vegetable is, in most bodies, converted to a highly pungent chemical related to skunk spray.

Undeterred by its modest defects, the Europeans continued to ennoble asparagus. While green asparagus won the hearts of Americans, the white vegetable was the European’s crown jewel. To grow it, mounds of soil were placed over the stalks. The covering blocked sunlight and prevented the plant from producing chlorophyll and turning green. Although the white asparagus was bigger and thicker than its cousin, Europeans were convinced that it was more tender.

Chefs still dazzle their patrons with luxurious asparagus dishes. Consommé Argenteuil, one of many dishes named for a town that supplied Paris dining rooms with the vegetable during the 19th century, is one splendid example. The asparagus is cooked in a liquid suffused with egg yolks and whipping cream.

Agronomists are now attempting to breed a white asparagus that, unlike earlier efforts, would thrive in American soil. But can the white stalks ever equal verdant asparagus as an exhilarating reminder of spring? The Romans would have shaken their heads in disbelief.

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Spearing Asparagus

City Lights of China (1731 Conn. Ave., NW; 202-265-6688). This restaurant offers two soups that feature the vegetable: asparagus and seafood and crab and asparagus.

Jaleo (480 7th St., NW; 202-638-7749). Asparagus is beloved by the Spaniards. One of the restaurant’s small dishes is asparagus grilled with romesco sauce.

Sala Thai (1301 U St., NW; 202-462-1333). Asparagus is an accompaniment to a dish of shrimp sautéed in oyster sauce.

 

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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