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Before it became the bright green star of risottos and stir-fries, asparagus was a luxury fit for gods and kings

Paola Gavin
June 24, 2024

Asparagus has been considered a luxury vegetable for more than 2,000 years. It was known to the ancient Egyptians, who considered it sacred and used it as offerings to the gods, and was much prized by the Greeks and the Romans. As it was customary to cook asparagus briefly, the Roman Emperor Augustus coined the phrase “Citius quam asparagi coquantur”—“sooner than you can cook asparagus.” In his Roman cookery book, Apicus gives a recipe for a kind of frittata made with pureed asparagus, pepper, lovage, fresh coriander, savory, onion, liquamen (fermented fish sauce), wine, and oil. And it wasn’t just for eating: Pliny the Elder prescribed asparagus boiled with wine for pains in the chest and spine, and diseases of the intestines. He also recommended combining asparagus with cumin seeds to dispel flatulence or sharpen the eyesight, and as a diuretic or aphrodisiac.

Jews, too, have loved asparagus for centuries. It wasn’t mentioned in the Bible, but isparagus was mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (B. Berachot 51a)—although it may not refer to the exact same asparagus we eat today: “Asparagus brew is good for the heart and the eyes, and needless to say, for the bowels. If one uses it regularly it is good for the whole body, but if one gets drunk on it, it is bad for the whole body.”

The cultivation of asparagus, like many luxury vegetables, virtually disappeared during the Middle Ages, except in the monasteries of southern Europe and Moorish Spain. Asparagus did not reach England until the beginning of the 17th century, when Giacomo Castelvetro, in his book The Fruit, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy, complained of weedy specimens for sale in London. He could not understand why no one bothered to improve its cultivation, especially as it was so lucrative. So he proceeded to give detailed instructions on how to grow asparagus “as fat as your middle finger,” pointing out to his readers how landowners in Verona had tripled their profits by growing asparagus instead of flax and wheat.

About the same time, cultivation began in France. La Quintinie, chef to King Louis XIV, was first to grow asparagus in hot beds, so he could provide the king with a year-round supply. Today the most highly prized asparagus in France comes from Argenteuil, where the spears are forced to grow underground to prevent them turning green. In Italy, the white asparagus from Bassano is the most sought after, though the thin green spears of asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus) are usually thought to have the finest flavor. White asparagus is also much loved in Germany and Austria, where it is often dubbed the “royal vegetable” or “white gold.” In fact, it is said to have been one of Sigmund Freud’s favorite vegetables. It is so revered today that the cultivation of asparagus is celebrated each year along what is called the Spargelstrasse, or “Asparagus Road,” that stretches from Alsace to the state of Brandenburg.

Asparagus was first introduced to North America by European settlers around the middle of the 17th century. Today, green asparagus has become such a popular crop in California’s Sacramento Valley that an annual asparagus festival is held in Stockton. A similar festival is held each year in Oceana County, Michigan, on the second weekend in June that includes a parade, a pageant, and the crowning of an “Asparagus Queen.”

Asparagus can be cooked in a variety of ways. It may be boiled, steamed, fried in oil, or butter, pickled, or marinated. Asparagus also makes delicious soups, fritters, gratins, and quiches. It is also very good drizzled with olive oil or melted butter and roasted in the oven, or added to risottos, souffles, or scrambled eggs. The Chinese—who grow more asparagus than anywhere else in the world—often include asparagus in stir-fries. Asparagus can also be eaten raw, once the woody ends are removed, but some people find it hard to digest. In France and Italy, it is usually tied in bundles and cooked standing upright in a tall, covered pot in 2 or 3 inches of boiling water. In this way the lower stalks are boiled, while the tips are steamed.

Religious Jews do have some issues regarding asparagus, mainly because of the concern that the triangular scales along the sides of the spears could become infested with insects. To get around this, it is often recommended to shave down the spears up to the tips.

Asparagus has many health benefits. It is rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, antioxidants, and polyphenols, which help protect against coronary heart disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and some cancers. It is also a good source of potassium, which is thought to help lower blood pressure; vitamin A, which is beneficial for the health of your eyes; and vitamin K, which is needed for blood-clotting and the building of bones.

Asparagus also functions as a prebiotic, providing good bacteria in your gut. It is rich in folate, which is needed to make red blood cells. Pregnant women are encouraged to take folate, as it is beneficial for fetal development and the prevention of neural tube defects like spina bifida. Asparagus is also low in fat and high in fiber, which helps you feel full between meals, so it is often said to help you lose weight.

The Recipe

Asparagus With Hard-Boiled Egg Sauce

Asparagus With Hard-Boiled Egg Sauce

Paola Gavin is a food writer and author of four vegetarian cookbooks including Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking. Follow her on Instagram @paolagavin and on Twitter @paolagavinfood.

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