Asparagus densiflorus, setaceus. Native to Eurasia, asparagus is a member of the lily-of-the-valley family and is unique in having no leaves, but rather phylloclades, delicate photosynthetic branches. Also known as sparrow grass.

Before it was used as a food, it was considered a cure for heart trouble, and toothaches. It was even supposed to prevent bee stings. Once people had decided that it was food, it quickly gained a reputation for being an aphrodisiac.

It has long been known for a peculiar side effect; as French scientist and physician Louis Lémery wrote in his 1702 Traité des alimens:
"Sparagrass eaten to Excess sharpen the Humours and heat a little; ...They cause a filthy and disagreeable Smell in the Urine, as every Body knows."
Actually, the smell arises from the secretion of its odorous methyl mercaptan--and, as every Body knows, it takes no "Excess" of eating to provoke the smell. You can't smell the mercaptan in raw or cooked asparagus, but after the body breaks it down, you may notice an ammonia-like smell to your urine. Interestingly, not everyone forms mercaptan after eating asparagus. You have to be genetically programmed to do so. Whether there is a link between smelly urine and the supposed aphrodisiac properties doesn't bear thinking about.

Emperor Augustus of Rome was said to order executions to be carried out "quicker than you can cook asparagus", which is pretty damned quick. It also emphasises the importance of not overcooking this delicate vegetable.

Much later, in Hamburg, it was said that the main melody of Johannes Brahms Third Symphony was inspired by a meal of fresh asparagus and Champagne. Not sure you'd expect quite the same results from Asparagus with Warm Butter & Lemon Vinegarette, but it's jolly nice all the same, although you may have to wait for that particular node.

In her 1949 book The Physiology of Taste, M.F.K. Fisher recounts a story of the time it was reported to Monsignor Courtois de Quincey, bishop of Belley, that an asparagus tip of incredible size had poked up its head in one of the beds of his vegetable garden. Having rushed out to verify this for himself, the Bishop was astounded to see that the reports were true, and this asparagus stem promised to be wider that the girth of ones hand. Bishop Courtois took his knife to the stalk, only to discover that he was victim to a practical joke, and the stem was crafted from wood.

Healthwise, it is low in calories (6 spears are equal to about 25 calories only); high in fibre; and an excellent vegetable source of protein as well as folate and vitamins A and C.

To get tender asparagus, you'll want to either boil it or steam it. Asparagus can also be roasted.

• Wash fresh asparagus spears in cold water. This keeps them crisp, and helps to wash away any remaining soil or sand off the tips.
• Take a sharp knife, and cut about an inch off the bottom of each asparagus spear. If you have thick stalks, peel about halfway up their bottoms.

• TO BOIL: Boil the asparagus in about an inch of salted water for 3 to 5 minutes. Boil in a skillet, as pots frequently aren't wide enough.
• TO STEAM: Steam the asparagus in either spears or pieces for about 3 minutes. If your steamer isn't wide enough to accomodate the spears, steam them upright.
• TO ROAST: Preheat your oven to about 500 Degrees F. Place the asparagus on a baking sheet, and let them roast for 3 to 5 minutes (Or until they're tender.)
• TO STIR-FRY: Cut the asparagus spears into 2-inch segments. Stir-fry in a large pan with olive oil and a touch of garlic.

Once cooked, place on a serving dish. Spray some fresh lemon juice on top, or top with butter. Serve alone, with slices of fresh lemon, sautéed mushrooms, or sautéed onions. Season to taste with a bit of black pepper, or garlic salt.

There are many methods for cooking asparagus to choose from. I suppose in part it depends on how well-cooked you like it, but I much prefer it firm in texture. When I’m able to find really thin stalks of green or white asparagus, I rinse, trim, and wave them under very hot water to soften them slightly. Thicker stalks can be arranged on a serving plate (preferably black so that the nuance of the colour stands out), drizzled with lemon juice and microwaved for 30 to 45 seconds (depending on the thickness of the stalks). They’re very good garnished with gomasio. And there's no pots to wash.

A note on choosing asparagus:

The idea that thinner asparagus are better is an old wives' tale. Thick spears of asparagus are sweeter and juicier. Choose unblemished stalks with tightly bound tips - looser, leafier tips may mean that it is not as fresh.

A note on cooking asparagus:

Asparagus have a delicious, sweet and juicy taste that is progressively destroyed by overcooking. For ideal results, steam or braise at high heat for a short period of time - I never cook it more than a minute. The asparagus should be firm and crisp, but warmed through and bright green all over. Yum. See also How to cook asparagus for good advice.

A note on asparagus etiquette:

The Queen and Miss Manners eat their asparagus with their fingers - and so should you. It is considered correct even at the most formal functions to eat asparagus with your fingers unless the asparagus is chopped up. It's also a lot more fun than using a fork.

A note on asparagus accompaniments (say that five times fast!):

Asparagus is delicious with lemon - try a little lemon and melted butter with yours. For a more gourmet experience, try the traditional sauce of choice, Hollandaise, or maybe Asparagus and Scallops with lemon nut butter, my personal favourite.

"...asparagus makes my urine smell funny." -Babe Ruth

The chemicals which make urine smell bad after eating asparagus are S-methyl thioacrylate and S-methyl 3-(methylthio)thiopropionate. Those people who produce these compounds after eating asparagus have a gene which allows these chemicals to be produced while the asparagus is being digested.

Roughly 40% of the population has the gene, and 6% overall have it twice. Those that have the gene twice seem to produce more pungent urine than those who only have it once.

An experiment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where people were asked to smell different dilutions of "asparagus urine" found that most people could smell it if the dilution was stronger than 1 in 16. About 10% of people could detect it at much lower concentrations. Since most of us pee into toilet bowls filled with water, you'd have to have a pretty good sniffer to detect any strange whiff coming out of the bowl.

So, if eating asparagus makes your urine really reek, you probably either have two genes to make the scent or are particularly sensitive to the odour. So you can brag that you and the great Babe Ruth have a common genetic heritage.

adapted from The Science of Everyday Life by Jay Ingram

Asparagus by Marriott Edgar

Mr. Ramsbottom went to the races,
A thing as he'd ne'er done before,
And as luck always follers beginners,
Won five pounds, no-less and no-more.

He felt himself suddenly tempted
To indulge in some reckless orgee,
So he went to a caffy-a-teerer
And had a dressed crab with his tea.

He were crunching the claws at the finish
And wondering what next he would do,
Then his thoughts turned to home and to Mother,
And what she would say when she knew.

For Mother were dead against racing
And said as she thought 'twere a sin
For people to gamble their money
Unless they were certain to win.

These homely domestic reflections
Seemed to cast quite a gloom on Pa's day
He thought he'd best take home a present
And square up the matter that way.

' Twere a bit of a job to decide on
What best to select for this 'ere,
So he started to look in shop winders
In hopes as he'd get some idea.

He saw some strange stuff in a fruit shop
Like leeks with their nobby ends gone,
It were done up in bundles like firewood-
Said Pa to the Shopman, "What's yon?"

"That's Ass-paragus-what the Toffs eat"
Were the answer; said Pa "That 'll suit,
I'd best take a couple of bundles,
For Mother's a bobby for fruit."

He started off home with his purchase
And pictured Ma all the next week
Eating sparagus fried with her bacon
Or mashed up in bubble-and-squeak.

He knew when she heard he'd been racing
She'd very nigh talk him to death,
So he thought as he'd call in the ' Local'
To strengthen his nerve and his breath.

He had hardly got up to the counter
When a friend of his walked in the bar,
He said "What ye got in the bundle?"
"A present for Mother," said Pa.

It's 'sparagus stuff what the Toffs eat "
His friend said "It's a rum-looking plant,
Can I have the green ends for my rabbits?"
said Pa "Aye, cut off what you want.

He cut all the tips off one bundle,
Then some more friends arrived one by one,
And all of them seemed to keep rabbits
Pa had no green ends left when they'd done.

When he got home the 'ouse were in dark ness,
So he slipped in as sly as a fox,
Laid the 'sparagus on kitchen table
And crept up to bed in his socks.

He got in without waking Mother,
A truly remarkable feat,
And pictured her telling the neighbours
As 'twere 'sparagus-what the toffs eat.

But when he woke up in the morning
It were nigh on a quarter to ten,
There were no signs of Mother, or breakfast
Said Pa, "What's she done with her-sen?"

He shouted "What's up theer in t' kitchen?"
She replied, "You do well to enquire,
Them bundles of chips as you brought home
Is so damp... I can't light the fire."

This is an excellent recital piece because of the very regular form which makes it memerable and amusing. It should be performed in a Lancashire accent to make the abbreviations critical to the meter sound more natural.

Asparagus. Such a simple, innocent little word, it seems. Tasteful, you say? Perhaps.

Let us investigate.

As Webster states, the etymology of the word 'asparagus' is quite complex. It stems from the Late Middle English 'sperage' which was derived from the Medieval latin 'sparagus' and means 'to swell'. The lengthy veggies certainly have high H20-content - which makes them terrible drums stick by the way - so no discrepancies there. What then, is the cause of my agony?

Well, first of all, 'asparagus' doesn't quite sound like something edible, does it?. How many foods end on '-us'? It's a word more suited for an illness, I reckon, or a Roman emperor at best.

Emperor Julius Gaius Asparagus. If only he had existed. We'd have thirteen months of which one would be named 'Asparagust'. Maybe he'd be a warlord and a terror to all his foes. Kindly suspend your disbelief:

 

Somewhere, in a war struck province of the Roman empire, 40 BC...

A tent flap opens, and a messenger hurries in, covered in the detritus of battle. Sweat drips down his forehead and stings his eyes. He kneels before his superior.

"Sir, the legions of Asparagus have defeated our forces! They were numerous and well prepared"

The leader sits upon his chair, lost and weary, and then spits into his cup angrily.

"Damn that Asparagus!," He mutters. "One of these days I will have my vengeance, mark my words. I will eat this Asparagus alive!"

Meanwhile in the distance, shouts can be heard..: "Asparagus! Asparagus! Asparagus! Hail Asparagus!"

 

Ha ha..

 

I digress. Did you know that pronounced backwards, the word sounds like "sugar wraps-ah"? You learn every day, they say.

More precisely, the reverse forms the words: sugar apsa. And let that very APSA be the acronym for American Political Science Association. A sweet bunch they are indeed,  controlling your education and your food, changing you from the inside.*

And they make your wee-wee stink.

 

 

*Actually, they don't. Really.

Can't but reiterate: a good asparagus is like a young man: upright, thick, tall, and full of good things. A bad asparagus is like an old man: thin, short, bent, and soft. Skinny asparagus is not an "old wife's tale" but a positive lie to extend the asparagus season from a few weeks to year-round.

That said, let's tell the tale of Queen Victoria.

At one court dinner, it was given that a little girl be the Queen's confidante, for half the meal. This included the asparagus.

The Queen favored the sword swallower method of eating asparagus, and actually relished the opportunity to eat with her fingers in public.

The little girl therefore watched in horror as the most powerful political figure in the world violated every rule of table manners she'd ever seen.

"Ohhh." she said. "Nursie says to that piggie, piggie!"

And at that the Queen laughed. What more could she say?

As*par"a*gus (#), n. [L., fr. Gr. , ; cf. to swell with sap or juice, and Zend paregha prong, sprout, Pers. asparag, Lith. spurgas sprout, Skr. sphurj to swell. Perh. the Greek borrowed from the Persian. Cf. Sparrowgrass.]

1. Bot.

A genus of perennial plants belonging to the natural order Liliaceae, and having erect much branched stems, and very slender branchlets which are sometimes mistaken for leaves. Asparagus racemosus is a shrubby climbing plant with fragrant flowers. Specifically: The Asparagus officinalis, a species cultivated in gardens.

2.

The young and tender shoots of A. officinalis, which form a valuable and well-known article of food.

⇒ This word was formerly pronounced sparrowgrass; but this pronunciation is now confined exclusively to uneducated people.

Asparagus beetle Zool., a small beetle (Crioceris asparagi) injurious to asparagus.

 

© Webster 1913.

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