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2000 Years of Delight


Germany, Berlin, Bundle of asparagus shoots, close-up
Schon & Probst/Picture Press/Getty Images

Asparagus is a member of the lily family and related to onions and leeks. The word itself comes from the Greek word aspharagos, which derived from the Persian word asparag, meaning sprout or shoot and was used to refer to all tender shoots. According to the Wikipedia, "Asparagus was also corrupted in some places to "sparrow grass"; indeed, John Walker stated in 1791 that 'Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.'"

Although the Greeks picked and ate wild asparagus (as did early Egyptians, Spaniards, and Syrians) the first great asparagus lovers were the Romans. The Romans cultivated it in the first and second centuries A.D. - primarily in the Tiber River area - and the Roman Emperors kept what was called the Asparagus Fleet to quickly ship the vegetable to their tables when it was in season. They would also send it to the Alps where it was frozen and then enjoyed later at the Feast of Epicurus. A recipe for asparagus is included in Apicius's 3rd century Roman cookbook De re coquinaria.

Asparagus became popular in France and England in the 16th century and King Louis XIV had special greenhouses built to grow it year-round.

As hard as it is to believe, it's possible to have too much asparagus for a single meal. This only occurs if you're growing your own, but it has to be harvested when it's ready because it will have grown too far the next day. Caesar Augustus defined "haste" as being "quicker than you can cook asparagus." Under ideal circumstances a spear can grow as much as 12 inches in 24 hours. And anyone who has grown it can personally vouch for spears growing six to eight inches in that period.

Although asparagus is now available year-round, it doesn't really travel well. Most people can taste the difference between a spear cut and immediately cooked and a spear a day old and then cooked. Add a week of transit time and the difference in flavor is an order of magnitude. I only buy local asparagus when it's in season (about the last two weeks of April and the first week of May here in Knoxville, but it begins earlier further south and later in the north). Some vegetables are just too good to eat out of season or shipped in from somewhere else. Tomatoes are another such vegetable.

It's also best if it's cooked immediately and kept rather than stored raw. My mother's standard way of fixing leftover asparagus was to layer it a couple of spears deep on a baking sheet, then she would spread a layer of mayonaise over it and sprinkle grated parmesan cheese over the top. A few minutes under the broiler would heat the asparagus and brown the cheese and always resulted in a very happy Kevin.

But the happiest I've ever been with asparagus was one spring when I was young and my parents were in Europe for a month. I was house-sitting for them - and their 20-foot long asparagus bed. I'd cruise down to the patch when I got up and harvest a few spears to make an omelet. Then at dinner I'd cook some more, usually simmering it and topping it with a vinaigrette, mayonnaise, or blue cheese dressing. But it's also great roasted and makes a killer cold soup. For three weeks I had asparagus at least once a day, and often twice. Heaven!

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