Tuesday, March 5, 2019
"Asparagus will not bear too much winter"
Asparagus. Now there's an interesting word. If I had to guess, I'd guess French. The things seem French. But no, I'd be wrong. In medieval Latin it was sparagus which the common folk in England, rather delightfully, turned into "sparrow grass," where it had currency for centuries.
"Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry," John "Elocution" Walker wrote in 1791 in his "Critical Pronouncing Dictionary."
Not that asparagus aren't big in France. They are. Asperges. Particularly the white version, grown with dirt piled on them, so the shoots are never exposed to the sun, and photosynthesis doesn't begin. Manet painted their pallid stalks, and Proust studied them in "Remembrance of Thing's Past":
“What fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world.”
The word is almost unchanged by time or distance. σπαράγγι in Greek "sparangi." You don't need to know Latin to notice the citation leaping out in Juvenal's 11th satire: "...montani asparagi, posito quos legit villica fuso"—"some wild asparagus, gathered by the bailiff's wife when she is done with her spindle," part of a modest rural meal of his, along with goat and grape leaves, which he contrasts to the wretched imperial excess of the banquets of today that he isn't invited to anyway, where the deeper the flabby and indifferent host is in debt, the richer the provisions groaning on the table to his insulted guests.
Cato and Pliny also praise the vegetable (Pliny says that the best comes from Ravenna which, being a Dante fan, I nodded at approvingly, even though the dour Florentine wouldn't be planted there himself for another 1300 years).
The Romans dried them, then dropped them in boiling water as needed, a quick process that led the Emperor Augustus to say, when he wanted something done fast: "Citius quam aspargi coquentur," or, "Do it quicker than you can cook asparagus." (So fond was the emperor of the vegetable he created what was known as the "Asparagus Fleet" to rush it to his table).
There are about 3o0 varieties of asparagus, and yes, they were grown decoratively.
"The asparagus makes the strongest appeal to our sense of the beautiful," writes Charles Ilot, in his 1901 The Book of Asparagus, noting it belongs to the same order as lilies and tulips. (True then; but even plant families have their ruptures, and asparagus stalked off and formed their own family, asparagaceae).
Yes, there are poems about asparagus.
"Asparagus will not bear too much winter," Greg Kuzma writes, in the opening line of his brief elegy "Asparagus Beside the Road."
Neither will we. Not too much more winter anyway. Two below on Monday. Time for spring to rattle the bushes a little. Just to let us know it's coming.
Oh, and finally, yes, Edie prepared them for dinner Sunday, to go with t-bone steak that I grilled outside. Broiled, with a little olive oil and kosher salt, pictured above, which struck me as prettily green. Worth taking a picture of and, having the photo, a topic I hope might be worth delving into.