This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
The title Asparagus comes from Sparage, of Persian origin, and its form Sparagus became corrupted by popular etymology into Sparagrass, and Sparrowgrass, sometimes called simply "grass"; each of which terms was until recently in good literary use. The part of the plant which is supplied for eating is the turion, or young shoots, covered with small scales in place of leaves. These sprouts contain asparagin, a crystalline substance which is an amide of aspartic acid, being sometimes called "althein," and found also in the juice of beets, in the sprouts of cereals, and in leguminous seeds during germination. The chemical properties of asparagus are acetate of potash, phosphate of potash, and mannite, with wax, and the green resinous asparagin. The shrubby stalks of the plant bear red, coral-like berries, which yield when ripe, grape-sugar, and spargancin.
At Aix-les-Bains the eating of Asparagus forms part of the curative treatment for rheumatic gout. This vegetable was formerly known in England as "paddock cheese" - A syrup thereof is employed medicinally in Prance; taken at the evening meal asparagus conduces to sleep.
"Your infant pease t' asparagus prefer, Which to the supper you may best defer".
The water in which Asparagus is cooked will serve to do good against rheumatism, though somewhat disagreeable to drink. Asparagin, which is technically amido-succinamic acid (being contained likewise in the potato) is of no direct nutritive value, but it plays a useful part, when taken dietetically, within the intestines, by limiting putrescent changes, and so promoting fuller digestion.
"Nothing,"writes John Evelyn in his Book of Salads, "next to flesh is more nourishing than Asparagus, but in this country we overboil them, and dispel their volatile salts; the water should boil before they are put in." A salad of cold boiled Asparagus was an early English way of serving this vegetable. Gerarde advised that "Asparagus should be sodden in flesh broth, and eaten, or boiled in fair water, then seasoned with oil, pepper, and vinegar, being served up as a salad." This vegetable may fairly be given in diabetes, with a hope of its doing specific good. Though not producing actual sucrose in the urine when eaten freely by a healthy person, yet it forms, and excretes therein a substance which answers to the reactions observed by physicians if testing for sugar (except as to the fermentation test). The peculiar fixed principle asparagin, whilst stimulating the kidneys, and imparting a particular strong smell to the urine, after partaking of the shoots, exercises at the same time by the green resin with which it is combined, gentle sedative effects on the heart, becalming nervous palpitation of that organ.
This asparagin occurs in crystals which may be reduced to powder, one grain whereof, when given three times a day, proves useful for relieving dropsy from difficulties of the heart. The same can be got likewise from the roots of liquorice, and marsh-mallow. Asparagus grows wild on some parts of the English coast. Juvenal makes mention of a large lobster on a table surrounded with asparagus; and promises (in Satire xi.) to his friend Perseus a plate of mountain asparagus, which had been gathered by his farmer's wife.
"Montani Asparagi posito, quos legit villica, fuso".
Originally the Asparagus shoot grew from twelve to twenty feet high. Under the Romans stems of this plant were raised, each three pounds in weight, heavy enough to knock down an attendant slave with. But the former Grecian doctors denounced Asparagus as injurious to the sight.
"English cooks,"says Sir Henry Thompson, "rarely follow the proper method for boiling Asparagus, which should be as follows: The stalks of a stouter sort should be cut of exactly equal lengths, and boiled standing, tops upward, in a deep saucepan, nearly two inches of the heads being out of the water; the steam will then suffice to cook these heads, which form the most tender part of the plant; at the same time the tougher stalky portion is rendered succulent by the longer boiling which this plan permits. Instead of the orthodox twenty minutes allowed to average Asparagus lying horizontally in the saucepan, after the usual English fashion, (which only half cooks the stalk, and overcooks the head, diminishing its flavour, and consistence), a period of from thirty to fifty minutes, on the plan recommended, will render delicious fully a third more of the head, which is cooked by the steam alone. One reason why it is not uncommon to hear the best product of the fields of Argenteuil depreciated in this country, and our own Asparagus preferred, is that the former is insufficiently cooked at most English tables".
Pliny mentions in glowing terms the alimentary use of Asparagus. Its sprouts contain 94 per cent of water, nearly 2 per cent of nitrogenized matter, some fat, a minute percentage of sugar, and over 2 per cent of other organic substances. The asparagin forms one seventh part of the whole amount of non-nitrogenized substance. Formerly the roots were also used medicinally, and the juice of the red berries was an ingredient in what was known as the Benedictine electuary.
Mortimer Collins tells that Liebig, or some other scientist, maintains that asparagin, the alkaloid of asparagus, develops form in the human brain; so that if you get hold of an artistic child, and give him plenty of asparagus, he is likely to grow into a second Raffaelle. Evelyn presented some shoots "raised at Battersea, in a natural, sweet, and well-cultivated soil, sixteen, each of which weighed about four ounces, to his wife, showing 'what Solum, coelum, and industry will effect.' "
A really good soup, of special nutritive virtues, can be made with the tough ends of asparagus sprouts, cooked, and recooked in the same water until they have become soft, then mashed, and rubbed through a coarse sieve, adding a pint of milk thickened with flour, and a pint of the water in which the vegetable was boiled; also thickening this water with two tablespoonfuls of flour into which two tablespoonfuls of fresh butter are smoothly intermixed.
Mrs. Earle ("third Pot Pourri") found Asparagus quite poisonous in her case. She wrote to ask Dr. Haig how this fact might be explained. He then replied that as far as he knew Asparagus is harmless. But three years afterwards he wrote to her again, telling "what he felt sure would interest her, that the Asparagus is the cause of all your troubles, when you eat it so freely in the Spring." In a leaflet of his it is stated positively that the "Xanthin of certain vegetable substances, peas, beans, lentils, mushrooms, asparagus, etc., is as pernicious as that of fish and flesh;"but this dictum is certainly questionable.
Charles Lamb gave it as his opinion that Asparagus seems as a vegetable food to inspire gentle thoughts. Dickens narrates, in David Copperfield, concerning Dr. Blimber's educational establishment at Brighton, where little Paul was placed: "It was a great hot-house in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work; all the boys blew before their time. Mental green peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones, too) were common at untimely seasons, and these from mere sprouts of bushes, under Dr. Blimber's cultivation".
Medicinally a fluid extract is made from Asparagus tops by the manufacturing chemist, which proves most helpful in dropsy (whether because of obstructed liver, or of defective heart action), by augmenting the flow of urine, and thus carrying off the dropsical effusion. Teaspoonful doses of this fluid extract should be given twice a day with one or two tablespoonfuls of water.
The chemical constituent principles on which Asparagus depends chiefly for its action on perspiration, and urination, are sulphuretted, and phosphuretted hydrogen.
The old English name "Sperage"bears reference to an ancient usage of feathery brushes made with sprays of the wild plant, to be employed for sprinkling ("asperging") the congregations in old Roman churches of Southern Europe. At Ravenna the sprouts have been sold three to the pound.