Becky Rupp’s superb writing is always a stunning combination of erudition, whmsy, insight, and wit. Here is just a tiny excerpt from Chapter One, “In Which Asparagus Seduces the King of France:”
As late as the 1930s, asparagus was still apparently a stranger to the ordinary table. In “Asparagus,” a poem of that period by comedian Marriott Edgar, his hero, the hapless Mr. Ramsbottom, wins five pounds at the races and decides to bring a present of asparagus— “what the Toffs eat” —home to his wife. Being ignorant of asparagus, however, he ends up giving away all the green tips to friends who (suddenly, suspiciously) claim to raise rabbits, and comes home with a handful of woody ends—which his wife mistakes for kindling, and then pronounces too damp to light the kitchen fire.
Most who got their hands on asparagus were both savvier and less willing to share. Among the best of asparagus stories is told of Bernard le Bovier de Fontanelle, irrepressible French writer and gourmand, who died in 1757, just one month short of his hundredth birthday. (He attributed his longevity to strawberries.) Planning a private asparagus feast, Fontanelle was dismayed to receive an unexpected guest, the Abbé Terrason, whom he felt compelled to ask to stay to dinner. Resignedly, he ordered his kitchen staff to prepare half of his treasured asparagus with the abbé’s favorite white sauce, and the other half as he himself preferred, in an oil dressing.
Just before the meal was served, the abbé suddenly crumpled to the floor in a fit of apoplexy. Fontanelle dashed to the kitchen, shouting frantically, “The whole with oil! The whole with oil!”