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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Happy Asparagus Day!

Happy Asparagus Day! A member of the lily family along with onions and garlic, people have been enjoying Asparagus for ages. Egyptians cultivated asparagus as an offerings to the gods. The green gifts from the Mediterranean wereoften called the Food of Kings. Thanks to master vegetable gardener Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie, Louis XIV of France, was able to eat asparagus well into December. This was no easy task. La Quintinie had detailed ideas on how he wanted to lay out the King's garden but the "Sun King" had other ideas. The major discrepancy was in where the garden would be planted. La Quintine wanted it planned around nice fertile ground but Louis wanted the garden planted within his reach. In the marshland chosen by Louis, La Quintine mastered the art of producing early, out of season fruits and vegetables. Thanks to very creative and inventive techniques such as cold frames, bell-glasses and layers of warm manure to protect the productions, the gardeners were able to supply Louis XIV with all his fruitful desires. "These wonders contributed to Le Potager du Roi (the King's Vegetable Garden's) reputation throughout Europe. Louis XIV often invited his court for a walk in the kitchen garden: from the height of the terraces, he would observe the work of the gardeners and would not refuse to take a few lessons with this gardener, whom he thought so highly of." source

Prized by the Romans and the Greeks, asparagus were considered a delicacy. As a matter of fact, the Greek word for stalk or shoot is asparagus. In a recipe from Apicius, the Roman gourmet and cookbook writer, the spelling of the word asapragus is asparagos, although sometimes we also find it termed sparagrass or sparrowgrass. All through history, there have been great tributes to asparagus. Perhaps with good reason, asparagus is a very healthy vegetable, and a good source of minerals and vitamins. It is also contains no fat or cholesterol. A true food hero, it is only recently that its health benefits have been clearly understood by modern science. It is rich in Vitamin C, folic acid, iron and potassium. It is also rich in antioxidants and is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables in existence. It provides more nutrients, in greater quantities, than most any of the vegetables found in the produce section of the supermarket. It’s a dieter’s dream, having only 4 calories per spear. Early Greeks believed asparagus could prevent bee stings and stop toothaches. Asparagus has been considered a food delicacy not only for its prized flavor, but for its root also which were believed to be a diuretic, laxative, and even a sedative. Today the elegant spear is sometimes known as a natural remedy to help relieve indigestion and has also been recommended as a mild sedative. In medieval times, the roots were boiled in wine and drunk several days in a row while fasting. This was believed to build up sexual desire in men and women. Madame Pompadour considered asparagus one of her prized aphrodisiacs.

As early as 200 B.C. the Romans had how-to-grow directions for asparagus. They enjoyed it in season and were the first to preserve it by freezing. In the 1st Century fast chariots and runners took asparagus from the Tiber River area to the snowline of the Alps where it was kept for six months until the Feast of Epicurus. Roman emperors maintained special asparagus fleets to gather and carry the choicest spears to the empire. The characteristics of asparagus were so well-known to the ancients that Emperor Caesar Augustus described "haste" to his underlings as being "quicker than you can cook asparagus." (source link broken)

Asparagus is America's favorite spring vegetable. According to some historians, the first settlers found wild asparagus in America along sandy coastlines and riverbanks. The first domesticated asparagus were brought to the New World in 1672. Dutch cultivation began sometime in the 1700s in Massachusetts. One of Thomas Jefferson's gardens in Monticello was reserved for asparagus which he planted from seed in the late 1700s. Asparagus parties were part of the social fabric of New England during the late 1800's. On Long Island, where I grew up, these parties were quite popular. Here is an excerpt from the book Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John M.E. Sherwood (1887.)

The asparagus party is a sort of a long picnic, in which a party of friends join, and drive or ride out to some convenient inn where a good dinner can be served, with the advantage of the early vegetable cut directly from the ground. As Long Island is famous for its asparagus, these parties from New York generally select some convenient locality there, near enough to the city to be not too fatiguing a drive. source

The asparagus trade on Long Island was quite lucrative. It is hard to imagine that wild asparagus once ran rampant along the roadsides of Long Island. It was in such abundance, it was difficult to control the Asparagus Beetle which like the potato beetle attacked Long Island's asparagus crop. The growers did get control of the damaging insect and by the late 1860's the asparagus beetle was pretty much under control. In 1875, there was such an abundance of asparagus grown on Long Island that the Long Island Railroad added night train service to get them into New York city. (source PDF) Here's a little "tip" for you. Did you know, Asparagus made history in the United States during WWII when they were used in a highly unusual way to attract fish for food.

Asparagus is not just a succulent veggie, it played a role in WWII spying. The presence of powerful chemical attractants called mercaptants convinced the United States to include sprigs in spy kits, with instructions to eat the delicacy (which is high in Vitamin A) and urinate into the ocean, thereby allowing the mercaptants to attract fish, making them easier to catch. source

Larousse Gastronomique states there are more than 100 species of asparagus. The most familiar being those that come in green, purple, and white. In Europe, the most popular is the white variant which is grown in the dark, with earth piled up over the spears to prevent it from developing a green color. Often with a purple point, the white asparagus is grown and enjoyed in Belgium, Holland, Germany and France. The green is favored in England and Italy, while the US grows and enjoys the green variety, although, the white is now often found in our grocery stores. The Germans are so fond of asparagus that during the arrival of asparagus season (Spargelsaison) agricultural towns dream up asparagus-themed events. During the Asparagus Days the Asparagus Gala begins the festivities. Restaurants that will have "spargil" festivals featuring sweet white asparagus prepared as many as twenty or more ways.

As of 2000, Michigan ranked third in the nation for Asparagus. Only the states of California and Washington produce more asparagus than Michigan. The long green stalks are one of Michigan's first crops to appear in the spring. Its growing season is brief, beginning in late April and ending in June. I don't really want to get into the politics but I would like to mention that the vegetable is the subject of a documentary film, Asparagus! Stalking the American Life. The film is set in Michigan and Filmmaker Magazine writes:

Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly's feature-length film Asparagus! "takes viewers to the small town of Oceana, Michigan, the self-proclaimed asparagus capital of the world. After 30 years, Oceana is facing the destruction of its farming base because of a little known provision in a trade bill resulting from the 'war on drugs' [which has inadvertently created a a strong Peruvian asparagus competitor]. Faced with economic ruin and the loss of their beloved vegetable, the community decides to fight back.

According to the website Eating Liberally, there is only one source for American asparagus, besides a local farm stand who has grown them and not had them shipped in from "who knows where, and that they say it is "good ol' Bird's Eye. They may not be organic as you may find in Whole Foods or your local grocery market but, "if it weren’t for Bird’s Eye, these Michigan farmers might be out of business altogether."

In the resource section below, I have also provided recipes gathered around the internet. The California Asparagus Commission has many inspiring recipes as does the Michigan Michigan Advisory Board. You will also notice, many of the recipes links are for the canning or pickling of asparagus. I myself am wrestling with the notion of preserving so much of the American Bounty this year. Although, I have cooked for many years, baked for far less, I haven't "preserved" with the exception of freezing, I really want to give it a try this year. We'll see...

Asparagus Soldiers
Asperges A La Fontenelle
An attractive way of economizing on asparagus comes from Belgium. Fontenelle is in Hainault, to the south of Charleroi, and close to the French border.
Serve everybody with a boiled egg and a small bundle of cold or barely warm asparagus. Put on the table a large pat of butter and a half loaf of brown bread, with salt and the pepper mill. Each person removes the top of his egg, seasons the nicely runny yolk with salt, pepper and a little knob of butter and dips the asparagus into it, nursery style. More bits of butter, more seasoning, may be added as the yolk goes down. Finish off the egg in the usual way with a spoon, eating it with bread and butter.
Note: If the asparagus is cold, it will be easier to manage; if it is tepid, it will taste even better. Provide napkins of cloth, not paper. Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book...Penguin Books, 1981

Resources
1. The Perfect Tips To Celebrate Asparagus Month
2. Asparagus Etymology
3. Madame Pompadour's Asparagus Recipe
4. Le Potager du Roi
5. How the King's vegetable Garden was made out of marshland
6. A Kitchen Garden Fit for a King
7. Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John M. E. W. Sherwood
8. All about Asparagus @ The World Wide Gourmet
9. Aloof, Elusive and Elegant
10. Asparagus in the Home Garden @ Michigan Asparagus Advisory
11. Filmmaker Magazine
12. Asparagus the Movie
13. The Movie & Trailer
14. Rooting For America's Asparagus Farmers
15. Asparagus Update (Farm Bill) (2008)
Recipes
1. Stockton Asparagus Festival
2. California Asparagus Commission (recipes)
3. Asparagus Recipes (Michigan Advisory Board)
4. Asparagus Soup & Peony Revealed
5. Canning Asparagus
6. Canning Asparagus
7. Canning Asparagus @ Canning USA blog
8. Pickled Asparagus
9. Pickled Asparagus @ Seasonal Chef
10. Asparagus Recipe Round-Up, 2010
11. Asparagus and Musings
12. Asparagus Tart and Rites of Spring
13. Victorian Recipes Asparagus and Eggs

8 Nibbles:

Rochelle R. said...

I love fresh asparagus. We had some at Easter. It is already back up to $3.99 a pound here so no more until next year.

~~Louise~~ said...

Good Morning Rochelle,

Thanks for visiting! Ouch $3.99! I'm thinking of at least freezing some this year just to enjoy them during the "dead" of winter!

Have you ever gone to the festival in Stockton?

glamah16 said...

Very informative posts as usual. I noticed in Germany last summer how big white asparagus is . It was everywhere.I love it. So it was a aphrodisiac? hmmm.:-)

~~Louise~~ said...

Hi Courtney

Thanks so much for stopping by.

The white asparagus seemed to be the most prized of all the varieties.

"A decoction of asparagus roots boiled in wine and being taken fasting several mornings together," Culpepper's Complete Herbal advises, "stirreth up bodily lust in man or woman, whatever some have written to the contrary"

Another source states, it is the asparagine located in the shoots...

Whatever the reason, they are a welcome harbinger of spring...

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

I am fascinated by asparagus. I love it! I didn't know that Asparagus Day was upon us, but fortunately, I made a lovely asparagus stir fry the other night, so I am right on schedule!

~~Louise~~ said...

Whew! I almost missed Asparagus Day myself T.W.

Lidian said...

Hi Louise,

I had no idea it was asparagus day! Thank you for enlightening me.

Clara said...

Ooh, I didn't know that May 24th is asparagus day. It's the same date as my birthday, what a coincidence!
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