This Veggie Was the 19th-Century Version of Viagra

“The Asparagus is one of the great Dainties of the Spring, and what I account to be part of the most necessary Furniture of a Garden,” wrote Richard Bradley in his New Improvements of Planting and Gardening (Both Philosophical and Practical) in 1719.

Bradley presumably was in a position to judge: a self-taught naturalist, he was an avid gardener and the first professor of botany at the University of Cambridge. Cambridge didn’t pay him, so he supported himself by writing books, among them several treatises on garden plants and The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director, a helpful compendium that included the first English recipes for pineapple.

Trenching, The Downside to Gardening

The problem with Bradley’s “great Dainties”—then and now—is the planting instructions, which inevitably, in every century, begin “Dig a trench.” “Dig a trench as wide as you intend your Beds to be, and two feet deep,” writes Joseph Prenis of Williamsburg, Virginia, in his 18th-century directions for setting out asparagus. Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery orders hopeful asparagus growers to “digg ye earth out a yerd [yard] deepe.” People did it, too: archaeologists excavating the grounds of the Peyton Randolph house in Williamsburg found four vast asparagus pits, variously lined with broken wine-bottle fragments, oyster shells, and animal bones.

Trenching—face it—is not the fun part of gardening. “Witnesse these trenches made by griefe and care,” wrote Shakespeare. He was talking about wrinkles, not asparagus, but he had the right idea.

Once you’ve gotten past the trench, however, asparagus comes into its own. Garden asparagus—Asparagus officinalis—pops zestfully out of the ground in spring. The undeniably penile shape of the emerging stalks doubtless contributes to asparagus’s lush reputation as sex food, which dates to antiquity. The ancient Greeks dedicated asparagus to Aphrodite, goddess of love. Roman author Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century CE, listed it as an aphrodisiac. (He also states optimistically that “if a person is rubbed with asparagus beaten up in oil, he will never be stung by bees.”)

Asparagus: The Remedy for Bad Sex?

The legendary second-century Sanskrit sex manual, the Kama Sutra, touts asparagus paste in milk as a boost for lackluster lovers; and in Renaissance Europe, asparagus was one of the remedies suggested for the unhappily dysfunctional male. “A concoction of asparagus roots boiled in wine and being taken while fasting several mornings together,” claims Nicholas Culpeper in the Complete Herbal (1653), “stirreth up lust in man or woman, whatever some have written to the contrary.” Nineteenth-century French bridegrooms, to alleviate performance anxiety, were traditionally fed three courses of asparagus on their wedding nights.

Science doesn’t back up asparagus’s claims as a vegetable Viagra, though all agree that it’s a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, and folic acid. Most also agree that is tastes scrumptious.

Julius Caesar was fond of it—and apparently was picky about its preparation; there’s a record of a disappointing meal he shared in which his host slathered the tasty spears with myrrh instead of his preferred olive oil. Under Augustus Caesar, special boats—collectively known as the “Asparagus Fleet”—were maintained to transport asparagus from source to table, where it was apparently cooked al dente. A catchphrase of the time—“quicker than it takes to cook asparagus”—seems to have been the Roman equivalent of “lickety-split.”

When 5,000 Asparagus Plants Aren’t Enough

King Louis XIV, a fanatical gardener, had 6,000 asparagus plants in hotbeds in the kitchen garden at the Palace of Versailles, which annually provided the court with asparagus as early as December.

The king’s great-grandson and heir, Louis XV also made good use of the royal asparagus beds. A surviving recipe attributed to his mistress, the stunningly gorgeous Madame de Pompadour, features “Dutch” asparagus—that is, a white variety with purple tips—in a buttery sauce. A seductive purple, incidentally, was also said to be the color of Madame de Pompadour’s underwear.

Recipe: Asperges à la Pompadour

Choose three bunches of the most beautiful asparagus from large young Dutch plants, that is to say white ones with purple tips. Trim them, wash and cook them in the ordinary way, that is to say by plunging them in boiling water. Slice them afterwards by cutting them on the bias near the tip,into pieces the length of the little finger. Use only the best parts, setting aside the rest of the stems. Put the chosen pieces in a hot napkin so as to drain them and keep them hot while you prepare your sauce.

Empty a medium-size pot of butter from Vanvre or Prévalais and put the contents in spoonfuls in a silver dish. Add a few grains of salt, a good pinch of powdered mace and a generous spoonful of pure wheat flour; and in addition the yolks of two fresh eggs diluted with four spoonfuls of the juice of sour Muscat grapes.

Cook this sauce in a double boiler; do not allow it to thicken excessively and thus become too heavy. Put your sliced pieces of asparagus in the sauce, and serve it all in a covered casserole as an extra, so that this excellent course does not languish on the table and can be appreciated at the height of its perfection.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.

Comments

Comments (3)

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Sex and the Celery: Ancient Greeks Get Busy With Help From Veggies – The Plate: Rebecca Rupp

    […] Historically, however, vegetables have packed a more exciting punch. The garden, traditionally, has been a hotbed of aphrodisiacs. Some sex-food picks may have originated from sheer physical resemblance. The medieval Doctrine of Signatures, for example, argued that the Almighty left medical clues (“signatures”) scattered throughout the natural world, pairing helpful resemblances to body parts with the ailments to be cured. Thus walnuts—wrinkly, like the surface of the brain—were intended to treat head wounds and headaches; and lungwort—whose speckles reminded somebody of diseased lungs—was an obvious choice for pulmonary problems. (See “This Veggie Was the 19th-Century Version of Viagra“) […]

    May 20, 201417:02 am
  2. Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio

    […] The 19th-century vegetable version of Viagra. […]

    May 24, 201418:37 pm
  3. Foods for a Good Sex Life

    […] On their wedding night, grooms in 19th century France were given a three course meal of asparagus. Packed with vitamins and minerals, asparagus is thought to boost the body’s production of […]

    February 14, 2016110:19 am