One of the first crops to emerge from the ground in New York State is asparagus (scientific name: asparagus officinalis). The vegetable is an integral part of America’s colonial history. It must have been a taste of nostalgia that prompted New Netherland settlers to try and cultivate asparagus in unfamiliar surroundings.
A member of the lily family and related to onions and garlic, asparagus has a distinct history. In Europe, the vegetable had been an exclusive product for centuries, out of reach of the poor, and recommended for medicinal use due to its diuretic properties and its purported role as an aphrodisiac.
Asparagus was commended for its distinctive flavor by such eminent figures as Julius Caesar, Louis XIV, and Thomas Jefferson. The vegetable also inspired some of the greatest European still life painters. They in turn made an impact on a contemporary American artist.
Queen of Vegetables
Enjoyed for its succulent shoots, cultivation of asparagus began in the eastern Mediterranean region. Greeks and Romans praised the vegetable for its flavor and texture. The oldest known recipe for preparing asparagus appeared in the third book (on vegetables) of De re culinaria, a collection of Greek and Roman cooking instructions compiled in the ninth century by the otherwise unknown author Caelius Apicius.
The same plant produces three types: the common all-green spears; the white spears that grow underground preventing the development of chlorophyll; and the lavender-tipped variant (whites that have received some sun to give a slight coloring). The last two are fibrous and must be peeled, but have a more delicate flavor than green ones. The cultivation of white asparagus is restricted to France and the Low Countries – few people in these regions would ever touch a green spear.
Asparagus was re-introduced into Europe in the fifteenth century by French monks who had preserved the expertise of its cultivation. A trend was set when Louis XIV ordered Royal gardeners to grow asparagus in his Versailles hothouses. It became the ‘Queen of Vegetables.’
Herbalists at the time studied plants for their ‘properties’ and pharmaceutical use. They lauded asparagus for its medical virtues. It was used as a laxative and said to expel gravel and stone from the kidneys. Asparagus was taken to ease urination (in spite of the bad odor which, according to French novelist Marcel Proust, turned his “chamber-pot into a vase of perfume”).
Some hailed its power to stir up “bodily lust in man or women.” The theory of shape analogy (“correspondences”) was developed in the sixteenth century by the Swiss physician Paracelsus. It states that plants resembling certain parts of the body can be applied to treat ailment or used to enhance passion. To Madame de Pompadour asparagus was her favorite erotic stimulant. Members of the nobility hosted banquets where women gobbled spears of asparagus and men indulged in oysters. Casanova apparently sucked fifty raw oysters when sharing a bath with the lady of his fancy.
Asparagus sprouted first in the Paris region, where it remained a luxury product accessible only to the clergy and wealthy. From France passion for the spear moved to the Low Countries, Germany, England, and America.
Asparagus were first introduced in England by the Romans and then forgotten. They returned during the reign of Henry VIII and became a “Royal” delicacy. To those who could afford to eat meat, vegetables always took second place. Only seasonal rarities such as asparagus were worthy of being placed on a rich man’s dining table.
Modena-born humanist Giacomo Castelvetro was arrested in Venice in 1611 by the Inquisition for his Protestant beliefs, but released after intervention of the English ambassador Dudley Carleton. He was offered safety in Greenwich. Appalled by the English cuisine, he composed A Brief Account of the Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy in order to improve the nation’s diet. Instead of meat, he advised his readers to eat spinach, broccoli, artichokes, peas – and asparagus.
The arrival of refugees from France and the Low Countries in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries gave rise to market gardening. They were the first to grow root plants on a commercial scale, introducing many vegetables to the marketplace: carrots, parsley, lettuce, watercress, pumpkins, and cucumbers.
In Battersea, on the south bank of the Thames, there is to this day a tavern named The Asparagus. The name reflects an intriguing phase of local history. Many French and Flemish refugees had settled as market gardeners in Battersea where their plots covered the district. They played a crucial part in feeding the capital. They also democratized the availability of asparagus. Sold in a bunch, these were known as “Battersea Bundles.”
William III of Orange is said to have taught Jonathan Swift and William Temple how to eat asparagus in the Dutch manner (that is, with a sauce of melted butter poured into a hard-boiled egg sprinkled with ground pepper and nutmeg). By the eighteenth century, vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus had lost their exclusive connotations and were being prepared in English kitchens as if they had been native cauliflowers or cabbages.
Cultivation goes back to the New Netherlands era. Adriaen van der Donck, a graduate of Leiden University, was appointed law enforcement officer for the Patroonship of Rensselaerswyck, located along the upper Hudson River. He arrived in New Netherland in 1642. His position demanded extensive interaction with Dutch colonists and the local Indigenous People.
An astute observer and detailed recorder, he took it upon himself to describe the economic development of the settlement and relate his (positive) experience of the natural and cultural new world around him. His motivation was to encourage newcomers to help develop the colony.
Though his Beschryvinge van Nieuw-Nederlant (Description of New Netherland) was finished and copyrighted by July 1653, the First Anglo-Dutch War delayed its publication until 1655. Published by Evert Nieuwenhof in Amsterdam the book proved popular, going into a second enlarged edition the very next year. Poorly translated, it was not made available in English until 1841.
From his description of Dutch farming practices in the colony, it is clear that seeds and cuttings of all sorts of plants had been introduced by the first settlers and were shipped back and forth between the colony and the homeland. Van der Donck lists asparagus amongst the vegetables being grown in local herb gardens.
English settlers grew asparagus as well. In 1685, one of William Penn’s advertisements for Pennsylvania included asparagus in a record of crops that had adapted well to the American climate. Even here there is a Dutch context. In 1677, Penn had visited Leiden and The Hague. It is likely that he was introduced there to asparagus that were cultivated in the nearby Westland region with its reputation for horticulture.
Van der Donck was eventually granted a tract of land north of Manhattan and, as an influential figure in New Amsterdam, he became a rival to Peter Stuyvesant. With his landholdings and political clout, he maintained the (minor) Dutch title of “Jonkheer” which evolved into the name of the city of Yonkers, Westchester County, where his estate was located.
Spear of Tradition
Argenteuil, a Parisian suburb on the banks of the Seine, stands out as a center of excellence in the history of French asparagus. A range of dishes was named after the place, including a tasty “Crème à l’Argenteuil,” a cream of asparagus soup.
Argenteuil also was the chosen retreat of Impressionist painters. Offering a variety of open-country motifs and spectacular views of the river, it became a hub of artistic activity. Claude Monet was the first to settle there in December 1871. When Édouard Manet visited him in the summer of 1874, he was tempted to adopt his friend’s preference for painting en plein air. Exhibited at the Salon of 1875, Argentueil is the artist’s first painting to be labelled an Impressionist work.
Manet was an admirer and student of Flemish and Dutch still life painting. His trip to the asparagus region would have reminded him of the peculiar ability of painters in that tradition to include a range of vegetables in their compositions.
The image of asparagus as the sole element of still life depiction was set by Adriaen Coorte, a relatively unknown Dutch master (active in Middelburg between about 1683 and 1707) who created a series of fine pictures in which the vegetable is given prominence. That memory may have inspired Manet. A few years after his visit to Argenteuil, he painted “A Bunch of Asparagus” (1880).
The chain continues to this day. John Morra works from a studio in Stuyvesant, New York. Trained at the New York Academy of Art, he is a modern master of tasteful still life painting, continuing in the footsteps of Dutch, Spanish, and French masters. His 2008 painting “Asparagus” highlights the transatlantic connection and confirms our shared gustatory and artistic heritage.
Illustrations, from above: the Apicius manuscript (ca. 900 AD) acquired in 1929 by the New York Academy of Medicine; a Roman floor mosaic with asparagus dating to between 350 and 375 CE. (Vatican Museums, Rome); title page of A Brief Account of the Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, 1614 (manuscript held at Trinity College, Cambridge); the Asparagus tavern, Battersea, London; A bundle of Asparagus, 1703 by Adriaen Coorte (The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge); A Bunch of Asparagus, 1880 by Édouard Manet (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne); and Asparagus, 2008 by John Morra (John Morra Fine Art).