Asparagus densiflorus, setaceus
to Eurasia, asparagus is a member of the lily-of-the-valley family and is unique in having no leaves, but rather phylloclades
, delicate photosynthetic
branches. Also known as sparrow grass.
Before it was used as a food, it was considered a cure for heart trouble, and toothaches. It was even supposed to prevent bee stings. Once people had decided that it was food, it quickly gained a reputation for being an aphrodisiac.
It has long been known for a peculiar side effect; as French scientist and physician Louis Lémery wrote in his 1702 Traité des alimens:
"Sparagrass eaten to Excess sharpen the Humours and heat a little; ...They cause a filthy and disagreeable Smell in the Urine, as every Body knows."
Actually, the smell arises from the secretion of its odorous methyl mercaptan--and, as every Body knows, it takes no "Excess" of eating to provoke the smell. You can't smell the mercaptan in raw or cooked asparagus, but after the body breaks it down, you may notice an ammonia-like smell to your urine. Interestingly, not everyone forms mercaptan after eating asparagus. You have to be genetically programmed to do so. Whether there is a link between smelly urine and the supposed aphrodisiac properties doesn't bear thinking about.
Emperor Augustus of Rome was said to order executions to be carried out "quicker than you can cook asparagus", which is pretty damned quick. It also emphasises the importance of not overcooking this delicate vegetable.
Much later, in Hamburg, it was said that the main melody of Johannes Brahms Third Symphony was inspired by a meal of fresh asparagus and Champagne. Not sure you'd expect quite the same results from Asparagus with Warm Butter & Lemon Vinegarette, but it's jolly nice all the same, although you may have to wait for that particular node.
In her 1949 book The Physiology of Taste, M.F.K. Fisher recounts a story of the time it was reported to Monsignor Courtois de Quincey, bishop of Belley, that an asparagus tip of incredible size had poked up its head in one of the beds of his vegetable garden. Having rushed out to verify this for himself, the Bishop was astounded to see that the reports were true, and this asparagus stem promised to be wider that the girth of ones hand. Bishop Courtois took his knife to the stalk, only to discover that he was victim to a practical joke, and the stem was crafted from wood.
Healthwise, it is low in calories (6 spears are equal to about 25 calories only); high in fibre; and an excellent vegetable source of protein as well as folate and vitamins A and C.