A tea sandwich with the noblest of vegetables.
It’s only fitting, really. After all, tea sandwiches are associated with classy places and events, and asparagus has been associated with finer living through most of Western history.
In Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, the Greek historian tells an anecdote of Julius Caesar’s good manners using asparagus–this printing from a 1919 translation by Bernadotte Perrin:
Of his indifference in regard to his diet the following circumstance also is brought in proof. When the host who was entertaining him in Mediolanum, Valerius Leo, served up asparagus dressed with myrrh instead of olive oil, Caesar ate of it without ado, and rebuked his friends when they showed displeasure. “Surely,” said he, “it were enough not to eat what you don’t like; but he who finds fault with ill-breeding like this is ill-bred himself.”
In defense of Caesar’s friends, myrrh tastes bitter and balsamic. Mediolanum was ancient Milan, and an important trade center; the purpose of dressing Asparagus with myrrh was likely the ancient equivalent of putting gold leaf on an ice cream sundae — it shows off the wealth of the host, even if it does nothing for the ice cream.
Around a century after Julius Caesar found himself on the wrong end of his friends’ cutlery, the oldest surviving collection of Roman recipes included an asparagus preparation. The original De Re Coquinaria was written in vulgar Latin, but here’s a 19th century update into classical Latin by Christian Theophil Schuch:
Which, roughly translated, is: Asparagus: dry asparagus, lower backwards into heat, put back the harder ones. Very little has changed in the preparation of fresh asparagus.
By the 17th century, Louis XIV had asparagus grown in the hothouses at Versailles so he could have them year-round. To explain why that’s impressive, though, it helps to know a little bit about Louis XIV and his garden obsession.
The Palace at Versailles, and consequently the original iteration of the garden, were completed by Louis XIII, but it was Louis XIV who really viewed the garden as being a place for the French to show their scientific and cultural superiority to visiting nobility. In 1686, work completed on the Versailles Orangerie, a shelter for delicate plants (mostly orange trees) to live during the winter months. The trees were grown in boxes, and during the warmer months, the boxes would line the paths.
Perhaps an even more illustrative example of Louis XIV’s love of exotic flora is that, late in his life, he demanded as part of a peace treaty a coffee plant the Dutch had managed to keep alive in their hothouses. Coffee, obviously, did not take to French cultivation with the same enthusiasm the sweet oranges had.
Consider, then, that in this garden of the exotic and beautiful, Louis XIV set aside space to grow asparagus. And when you’re talking about French asparagus, you’re talking about white asparagus — buried under six inches of dirt, to avoid the production of green chlorophyll.
In other words, this is (roughly) what the kitchen garden looked like…
… and this is what growing white asparagus looks like.
In the 1770s, Marie Antionette had the botanical gardens (including the potager, or kitchen garden) removed so she could have an English-style — that is, natural landscape — garden. They were moved to Paris, where they still function today as the Jardin des Plantes. And frankly, my dear, if the residents at Versailles couldn’t get year-round fresh asparagus because some painted-up tart wanted to look at cat-tails by a lake, she got off light.
Asparagus came to the new world with settlers where it was cultivated as part of gardens; commercial production started in California around 1850. An early domestic suggestion for an “open” asparagus sandwich appeared in the September 25, 1925 edition of The Ironwood (Michigan) Times:
Hints for the Household
By Betty Webster
Open Vegetable Sandwiches
Fresh Mushroom Sandwiches
Asparagus Tip Sandwich with Mayonnaise.
Strong beans chopped with chili sauce makes a good sandwich.
Brown bread, buttered. Spread with minced sardines moistened with lemon juice. Decorate with pickle and pimento. Makes a very delightful sandwich.
Salmon sandwich with Tartar sauce is delicious.
Now, asparagus cultivation in California has all but stopped due to the state’s ongoing water problems. While asparagus doesn’t use that much water to grow, the plants themselves are annuals, producing around ten or fifteen seasons of asparagus after an initial two or three year maturing process.
If the state were to cut off the water supply due to a declared drought emergency, you’ve not only lost this season, but all of the seasons left in the plant — and even if you replant as soon as possible, it’ll be two or three years before you can sell again. In the face of that uncertainty, commercial farms have just moved on to safer crops, with rare exceptions. If things keep going like they are, you’ll have to be nobility to find any that hasn’t spent the most delicious weeks of its life waiting on an a boat.
From a box sold in Warren, Michigan. Click here to see the card in full size.
1 can cut asparagus (15-1/2 oz. approx.)
2 hard-boiled eggs
1 (3 oz.) Philadelphia Cream Cheese
- All above in blender until smooth
- Cut crust off bread.
Use two slices with above mixture between, cut in half after it is broiled —
- Only when ready, use butter on outsides of bread and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
Broil; when one side is brown, turn over to other side until that side is brown.
N.B.: It may be frozen in stored in sandwich bags before broiling bread.