with recipes for white and green asparagus
Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot. This makes it art and
it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.
(Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons)1
Who eats asparagus, doesn’t sin!
(popular German saying)
THERE’S hardly any food you would more expect to find on a website dedicated to Freudian recipes – after wiener and sausages, of course – than asparagus. I call this vegetable the vegan ersatz wiener, to convey a somewhat more contemporary chic if you will. Asparagus was traditionally the nobleman’s food of idleness. A gourmet’s delight for kings and emperors, Roman, French and Habsburg’s alike, in need of something in their mouth, but without all the calories much needed by their working subjects. Pure oral pleasure. In this post, let’s find out how to achieve that with two little recipes, one for white asparagus and one for green!
Everybody gets the obvious here. To quote Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams itself: “No knowledgeable person of either sex will ask for an interpretation of asparagus.”2 A little known fun fact is that this seasonal specialty was actually one of Sigmund Freud’s favorite foods.3 Who doesn’t know Max Halberstadt’s famous photograph of Freud eating asparagus?
To Freud, no symbol was as universally understood as the phallus, even by women. Freud claimed, in what some characterize as the misogyny of his time and culture, “the more striking and for both sexes the more interesting component of the genitals, the male organ, finds symbolic substitutes in the first instance in things that resemble it in shape […]”.4 It is hardly possible to understand Freud, or his theory of personality and psyche, without understanding his obsession with the penis.
Furthermore, asparagus is in season in spring, as befitting for a plant that is commonly said to have a stimulating influence on the sex drive. Historian Ingrid Haslinger, in her book about asparagus, quotes: “There is no denying that the asparagus is one of the most pleasant spring foods. Many people also enjoy it because it affects the sex drive very much.”5 She references this proverb from the 16th century: “Asparagus enjoyed in the food, brings fun to the men.”6 Even as early as the 12th century, the so-called Arabic version of the Kama Sutra, “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delights” assigned aphrodisiacal properties to asparagus.7
Asparagus has also been imbued with other miraculous medicinal powers of more scatological nature. Marcel Proust in Swann’s Way – after describing the exquisite loveliness of asparagus, which to him “indicated the presence of exquisite creatures” – goes on to marvel at “that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them [asparagus], they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my humble chamberpot into a bower of aromatic perfume.”
Viennese amateurs traditionally – much like the French, who can always be trusted in all things sex and food – consider the white variety nobler than the green and those more difficult to find shades, like violet. Partially peeling the green ones helps in that respect. A simple sautée will elevate them even further – particularly when you get the French slang meaning of it. In fact, the white one, while lacking the grassy notes, and being more delicate in taste, boasts nonetheless a supplement of the much-prized asparagus taste, which is a bit sweet with a tad of bitterness. It’s an acquired taste, or in other terms, a kind of gastronomical sado-masochism. The Viennese try to somewhat counteract that effect by adding a bit of sugar and cooking the vegetable along with white bread. (Kaiser rolls, naturally.)
You know what they say, the fatter and the straighter the stalk… the more expensive the asparagus. No kidding. The priciest, called solo plus, have straight white stems thicker than 2,5 cm or 1 inch. Yes, but get your minds out of the gutter and consider the more practical explanation. The reason is simply that white asparagus needs to be peeled quite thoroughly, especially towards its stem, hence it should be thick enough to be a decent size to hold between your fingers while eating.
Because, if you didn’t know already, it is generally considered a faux-pas to eat asparagus with anything else but your fingers, and heaven forbid with a knife. Cookbook author Joan Nathan tells a story about eating asparagus with her fingers at the Dreyfus’ home, the most proper people she knew in 1990s Paris.8 But lately, things have started to sway back in favor of fork and knife, to the supposedly cleaner and definitely more puritan ways of a prudish Anglo-Saxon world.
The move away from meat and away from traditional ways of eating phallic food is perhaps also the symptom of a decline of patriarchy and a slow softening of masculinity, no longer so overly assertive and aggressive, even in its paranoiac fear of castration. Coincidentally, the Viennese rule of eating with nothing but your fingers undisputedly also applies to a wiener, which even the Austrian emperor ate with his hands. Asparagus, the second-best culinary phallus, has had the way it’s eaten challenged before that of sausages. It is not difficult to imagine exquisite militant feminist banquets with the exact opposite rule: Knives only!
Anyway, eating asparagus in a civilized manner, whether with fingers or cutlery, all puns intended, is to bite off its head, proceed with the remaining soft parts and finally suck out its woody stem, which you’ll dispose of onto a plate at your disposition. After which, if applicable, you’ll innocently rinse your fingers in a bowl.9
The popular and scandalous song “Veronika, der Lenz ist da” (Veronika, spring has arrived) by Austrian composer Walter Jurman, who later fled to Hollywood from the Nazis, has quite explicit lyrics regarding asparagus.10 It was performed in the 1930s by a famous all-male group of singers, the Comedian Harmonists. They managed to flee to America after they had been banned from stage, because three members were Jewish or considered Jewish by Nazi racial laws, and a fourth had married a Jew.11
My all-time favorite rendition is by wonderful Hermann Leopoldi just before narrowly escaping death in a concentration camp and reaching the US.12 It seems like those Teutonic moralist monsters didn’t appreciate public obscenities that much. In fact, Austrians in general are allegedly known to pursue unspeakable pleasures and crimes in their basements, to preserve appearances and keep up the appearance of respectability.13 Just watch the Ulrich Seidl documentary In the Basement to gorge on Austrian’s everyday obsession with sex, violence and their apparently inevitable National-Socialist dreams.14
Consider how white asparagus grows from the earth’s basements upwards, shielded from light to remain supremely white. George Bush famously declared “the German asparagus are fabulous.”15. The implications, ramifications, and possibilities of this utterance are a mind-boggling catchall. Just think of it and eat it.
Certainly, Herman Leopoldi’s “Veronika, der Lenz ist da” lyrics cannot be misunderstood in their celebration of the growing asparagus. Especially the last verses about the chambermaid, contains a hardly veiled accusation of sexism and class oppression. Here’s the text translated from the German original16:
“Girl smiles, young man says:
“Miss do you want or not,
outside is spring.”
The poet, Otto Licht,
considers it his duty,
he writes this poem:
Veronika, spring is here,
the girls sing tralala.
The whole world seems bewitched,
Veronika, the asparagus grows.
Veronika, the world is green
so let us go into the woods.
Even grandpa says to grandma:
“Veronika, spring is here!”
The Mr. Son, Mr. Papa
rave about Veronika,
Everyone is knocking secretly,
Everyone asks her: Where and when
will it finally be my turn at last?
Veronika, spring is here …
The husband is looking with vigor
to connect with the chambermaid.
He sends his wife away,
Then he calls the girl perkily
and explains to her the purpose:
“Veronika, spring is here …”
RECIPES: White Asparagus with Hazelnuts & Sautéed Green Asparagus with Olives
In honor of Herr Professor, I chose these two recipes. First, a French influence for the elegant white asparagus: light vinaigrette, paired with toasted hazelnuts reminiscent of the traditional Austrian and German dressing for asparagus, toasted breadcrumbs. The second recipe celebrates Italian spring, Sigmund Freud’s beloved gastronomical season and the country of most of his journeys. Italians like to simply sautée their greens in olive oil. The simpler the better. No accouterment. Naked, if you will.
Traditionally, white asparagus is boiled. Viennese add a little sugar and even white bread, supposedly to attenuate the bitterness. I could never verify this, however often I tried. In fact, for the occasion, I once again made one batch with and one without a Kaiser roll in the water, but again there was no noticeable difference in a blind test.
What makes a real difference is sous-vide or a good enough approximation, like tightly packing the asparagus in an oven. The flavor concentrates so much more. Nothing is lost to the boiling liquid. It’s simply fabulous.
Fresh asparagus has no dry, woody ends. It is not chewy at all. The best cooking method doesn’t help if the ingredient is old and dry. Freshness should, therefore, be your first and utmost concern. You can always cut off the ends, and that’s what greengrocers do to keep the appearance of freshness, but unfortunately, asparagus also develops bitterness over time.
Second comes size, and appearance last. The fatter and the straighter, the pricier. So, for white asparagus, I always make sure to get “solo +” as fresh as possible. True, it’s more expensive but it has a much bigger yield, meaning you’ll throw away fewer peels and ends with this kind of asparagus. Also, it will be easier and quicker to peel.
Testing for freshness
In Vienna, you should always ask before you touch the asparagus. You might think I made up the following ways to test the freshness of asparagus for the purposes of this article on the phallic food, but they really are the traditional procedures: When gently squeezed, the ends should give off a few droplets of juice. Another one is to rub two stalks together. It’ll make a squeaking sound if it’s fresh.
Try to minimize the storage as much as you can. If you must, you can keep it for a day or two, in the vegetable compartment of your fridge, always wrapped in a damp towel.
White Asparagus with Hazelnuts and Light Vinaigrette (serves 4)
- 2kg (4.4 lbs / 70 oz) white asparagus (extra fresh solo plus, the thicker the better)
- 125g (1/4 lbs / 4,4 oz) melted butter (oil for the vegan)
- 1/2 teaspoon baker’s sugar (superfine sugar)
- 1/2 cup Champagne vinegar (or a very light white vinegar)
- 4 tablespoons minced shallots
- 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 4 tablespoons light honey (agave syrup for the vegan)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup canola oil
- 1/3 cup blanched hazelnuts
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- finishing salt, to taste
- chopped parsley, for garnish
- Peel asparagus holding it just beneath the tip, between your index and thumb of your non-dominant hand. Peel starting right under the tip using a regular vegetable peeler. Make a second passage if necessary towards the end. If this is too difficult, or you are afraid of breaking the asparagus, place the asparagus on the cutting board while peeling. When finished, put the asparagus back under a damp towel.
- Cut woody ends of the asparagus, up to 1 inch. (Debunking of the snapping asparagus myth was done by Serious Eats.) A fresh asparagus will not have dry ends and will barely be woody. If, while cutting, you still notice any fibrous parts, peel them away.
- Cook asparagus: For maximum flavor, coat the asparagus in the melted butter, a little salt and the sugar in an ovenproof dish. Cover with baking paper, seal tightly with foil, and place in a preheated 400°F (200°C) oven (regular convection setting) for at least 45 minutes or until a knife glides through effortlessly, though some people prefer white asparagus more al dente. If you have a sous-vide, it’s a great occasion to use it at around 190-195°F (88-90°C).
- Toast and chop hazelnuts: Delicately toast the hazelnuts in a skillet. Be careful not to burn them! Chop them very coarsely, or, if you have the patience, just halve them, which I find looks much neater.
- Make the vinaigrette: In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the light lime vinaigrette, except the oil: vinegar, shallots, lime juice, honey, a pinch of salt. Add the olive oil and slowly whisk in the canola oil to emulsify the vinaigrette.
- Serve lukewarm: Arrange the asparagus on plates. Drizzle with three-quarters of the vinaigrette and sprinkle the hazelnuts and parsley on top. Serve the remaining vinaigrette separately. Season with finishing salt and freshly ground black pepper. Eat with your hands using a finger bowl.
- Drink champagne or another excellent sparkling white wine, or any full-bodied dry white wine, not too light nor too heavy on the alcohol, and low in acidity. As a general rule with asparagus, stay away from wooded or other barrel notes (though there are exceptions). Some Grüner Veltliner wines (see my post) would be very appropriate, but Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling can be very good here too.
Sautéed Green Asparagus with Olives and Lime (serves 4)
- 2kg (4.4 lbs / 70 oz) green asparagus
- olive oil for sautéeing
- pinch hot red pepper “chili” flakes, to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon baker’s sugar (superfine sugar) (optional)
- 4 tablespoons of fresh lime juice
- 1 lime quartered for garnish
- extra virgin olive oil for garnish
- 1/4 cup black olives for garnish
- finishing salt
- Trim asparagus: Wash and cut off the woody ends, approximately 1 inch. (Debunking of the snapping asparagus myth by Serious Eats.)
- Peel asparagus: Start to peel 1/3 to 1/4 from the top of the asparagus.
- Sautée asparagus: In a hot skillet, heat olive oil with a few red pepper flakes just below its smoking point and immediately throw in the asparagus in batches small enough for you to be able to sautée them, or stir-fry them. Toss to coat in the oil. After a minute add salt, a pinch of sugar, toss again and cover for a minute or two. Uncover, toss and cover again. Green asparagus should be only slightly al dente. Reserve in a warm oven until you have finished with the remaining green asparagus.
- Olive slices: Slices olives in 1/25 inch (1mm) thick washers.
- Serve immediately: Arrange the asparagus on plates. Drizzle with lime juice and olive oil. Sprinkle with the olives and finishing salt. Place a quarter lime on each plate.
- Drink a full-bodied dry white wine. Some Grüner Veltliner wines (see my post) might be good here, although a Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling are probably best.
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- Getrude Stein, Seth Perlow (Editor), Juliana Spahr (Afterword), Tender Buttons. The Corrected Centennial Edition (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014)
- “The dream of the botanical monograph”, in: Complete works (Ivan Smith 2011), p.671
- Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud: Lebensweise, Gastlichkeit und Essgewohnheiten des Gründers der Psychoanalyse. Mit vielen Rezepten. (Dining With Sigmund Freud: Lifestyle, Hospitality and Eating Habits of the Founder of Psychoanalysis), by Katja Behling-Fischer (Vienna: Brandstätter, 2000)
- Freud continues without a trace of irony: “[…] – things, accordingly, that are long and upstanding, such as sticks, umbrellas, posts, trees and so on; further, in objects which share with the thing they represent the characteristic of penetration into the body and injuring – thus, sharp weapons of every kind, knives, daggers, spears, sabres, but also firearms plays a large part. This is perhaps the commonest instance of dream-symbolism and you will now be able to translate it easily.” Italics are from the original text. See “The Interpretation of Dreams”, section “Representation by Symbols in Dreams” in: Complete works (Ivan Smith 2011), p.821
- “Es ist nicht zu leugnen , daß der Spargel zu den angenehmsten Frühlingsspeisen gehört. Viele Personen genießen ihn auch deshalb gern, weil er sehr auf den Geschlechtstrieb wirkt …” Ingrid Haslinger, in: Spargel (Vienna: Mandelbaum, 2016) p.5
- “Spargel in der Spei genossen bringt lustige Begierde den Männern.” Ingrid Haslinger, in: Spargel (Vienna: Mandelbaum, 2016) p.27
- Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Nafzawi in Tunis in the 12th century see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Perfumed_Garden
- Joan Nathan, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous. My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (New York: Knopf, 2010) p.313
- The existence of these finger bowls and the use of their collection might be reason enough for some to eat with their hands.
- On Walter Jurmann (1903 – 1971) see Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Jurmann. And on the song https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veronika,_der_Lenz_ist_da
- See Wikipedia for more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comedian_Harmonists
- More on Hermann Leopoldi here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Leopoldi
- Some see this exemplified in the famous Fritzl case and the kidnapping of Natascha Kampusch from 2008.
- Urlich Seidl’s In the Basement (Im Keller) premiered at the Mostra in Venice in 2014.
- Here’s the context of this as reported by Reuters on Wednesday, June 11, 2008 under the title Bush falls for German asparagus:
“[…] he praised a dinner of white asparagus, a seasonal delicacy in Germany, which the two leaders [Angela Merkel and George Bush] had enjoyed the previous evening.
“I loved dinner last night,” Bush said.
“And for those in the German press who thought I didn’t like asparagus. You’re wrong. The German asparagus are fabulous,” he said, before the news conference switched focus to the conflict in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program and climate change.
In 2002, Bush fainted and fell from a couch after choking on a pretzel.
- Original German lyrics:
Mädchen lächelt, Jüngling spricht:
“Fräulein wolln Sie oder nicht,
draußen ist Frühling.”
Der Poet, Otto Licht,
hält es jetzt für seine Pflicht,
er schreibt dieses Gedicht:
Veronika, der Lenz ist da,
die Mädchen singen tralala.
Die ganze Welt ist wie verhext,
Veronik, der Spargel wächst.
Veronika, die Welt ist grün
drum laß uns in die Wälder ziehn.
Sogar der Großpapa sagt zu der Großmama:
“Veronika, Veronika, der Lenz ist da!”
Der Herr Sohn, der Papa
schwärmen für Veronika,
das macht der Frühling.
Jeder klopft heimlich an,
jeder fragt sie: Wo und wann
komm ich endlich mal dran?
Veronika, der Lenz ist da …
Der Gemahl sucht voll Schneid
Anschluß an die Stubenmaid.
Das macht der Frühling.
Seine Frau schickt er weg,
dann ruft er das Mädchen keck
und erklärt ihr den Zweck:
“Veronika, der Lenz ist da …”