by Brooke Chilvers
As a child in the 1950s, I did not grow up with fresh asparagus. Or fresh mushrooms, red peppers, or eggplants, much less parsley. Even in New York City, other than the holdout two-block Sicilian neighborhood on First Avenue just north of the 59th Street Bridge, you had to go downtown to Little Italy for escarole or basil. Young cooks just have no idea what it was like to track down ingredients that today arrive overnight in the mailbox.
But it’s May now in France, where green asparagus commands a higher price than the sun-blocked white stems — the opposite of the United States. Prices at the weekly marché for the thick, pale, knobby shoots are 12 to 15 Euros a kilo, or $7.25 a pound. At that price, it’s hard to sacrifice a bundle for an asparagus velouté, but the arugula and walnut pesto makes it worth it.
One of civilization’s oldest vegetables, dating back 2,000 years in Mediterranean cultures, a recipe for asparagus appears in the world’s oldest surviving cookbook, a collection of Imperial Roman recipes, written by Apicius in the 1st century AD. He cooks them standing up in boiling water, steaming the tips, like I do, in a proper copper asparagus pot, made in Villedieu-les-Poêles, in Normandy, where they’ve been making copper cookware and church bells since the 13th century.
Although still cultivated in 14th century French monasteries, asparagus pretty much disappeared from menus during the Middle Ages. But King Louis XIV loved asparagus and it returned to the court’s table in full force. The mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764), referred to them as points d’amour.
That term certainly conjures up Édouard Manet’s small, but glowing, painting of a single asparagus spear, L’Asperge (1880) or A Sprig of Asparagus, hanging in the Musée d’Orsay. I sought out its mauves and grays, its alabaster and ivory colors after reading Edmund de Waal’s compelling book, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), about the elegant and educated Rothschild-like, originally Ukrainian, Ephrussi family of international bankers, art collectors, critics, and patrons.
Charles Ephrussi (1849–1905), who edited and published the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, andwas the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, once owned the painting, as well as its “mother,” Botte d’asperges (1880) or a Bunch of Asparagus, which hangs today in Cologne’s Wallraf-Richartz Museum.
The story goes that Charles commissioned the elderly Manet to paint the bundle of vegetables for 800 francs, roughly $1,700 today. When Charles paid the partially paralyzed artist 1,000 francs instead for his loosely-painted, wet-on-wet oil, Manet responded in kind with the 6.7” x 8.6” oil of a single, lonely stalk perched on the same marble slab, along with a note saying there was one sprig missing from the original batch.
Botte d’asperges shows the purple-tipped pale cream and mauve spears, painted with thick impasto strokes, set on a bed of dark-green rocket that fills the foreground; the plain, dark, but transparently painted background is reminiscent of the Dutch Masters.
During World War II, the painting passed from Ephrussi into the hands of Third Reich businessman and financial advisor to the Nazis, Hermann Josef Abs, later Chairman of Deutsche Bank, who donated the painting to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, which had once rejected it due to its shady provenance.
It’s obvious when one eats authentic, seasonal, unforced asparagus why this member of the lilaceae family is appreciated for its diuretic properties. I recall my reaction to my first real asparagus, becoming aware of the distinct, steely, amino-acid odor of my urine in the closed quarters of a tiny French WC. The stuff from California never gives off anything at all, which puts in doubt any of the stalks’ aphrodisiac attributes. Of course, as with anything that shape, Hippocrates thought asparagus was good for troubles with the urethra, and also diarrhea. Google artist Max Ernst’s 1935 sculptures, Asparagus and Lunar Asparagus, and you’ll see what I mean. Its small red berries (actually seed pods) are toxic to humans.
The most appetite-stimulating asparagus in art are certainly by Dutch Golden Age painter Adriaen Coorte, who worked from 1683 to 1707. His almost minimalist treatment of the subject, as in Still Life with Asparagus (1697), is the very opposite of the overabundance generally indulged in in 17th century still lives of overladen tables. Instead, Coorte concentrated on the simple beauty of four apricots, or a bowl of strawberries, or a single sprig of gooseberries, all presented on a table, ledge, or slab, unfettered by gleaming glassware or glittering silver.
Coorte must have loved his asparagus, for he painted his “edible treasures” alone in a bundle with a single escaped sprig, or with their purple tips set off by gem-red gooseberries, or in the company of an artichoke or the occasional butterfly, the subject always in front of the darkest background and lit from above.
Little is known about the Dutchman’s life, despite his hundred known signed works. In fact, he was considered an obscure genre artist from the market town Middleburg, until “rediscovered” in the late 1950s and celebrated in 1977 with a now hard-to-find monograph.
As a student in Germany, I loved Spargelzeit (asparagus season), usually starting on St. George’s Day (April 23) and lasting until June. My friend Renate’s mother wrapped them in good ham and baked it all with Hollandaise sauce, served with boiled new potatoes, like she did with endives — another vegetable I’d never even heard of in my youth.
“A painter,” Manet once said, “can express all that he wants with fruit or flowers.”
Brooke Chilvers says her French friends still marvel at her oven-roasted and gas-grilled asparagus stalks, served on Sundays after the market.