The world’s oldest surviving cookbook is a collection of Imperial Roman recipes, compiled around the 1st century AD. In the intervening millennia the book, “Apicius De Re Coquinaria,” has attracted plenty of interest from scholars, cooks and food nerds who’ve pored over each line of text and attempted to observe each word from every possible angle like it’s “Finnegans Wake.”
In the game of historical recipe re-enactment, a single mistranslated word can derail a dish. In “Apicius’” “Book III: The Gardener,” for example, one particular asparagus recipe hinges on how the word “rursum” is translated. This is not just any recipe, but one that addresses a fundamental issue in asparagus cookery with an elegance rarely seen since.
Attempts to translate this work have been complicated by the fact that many of the recipes were written in vulgar Latin, an informal version of the language. “Rursum” is followed by “in calidam,” which means “in boiling water.” It’s also at times written as “rursus in aquam calidam.”
So, asparagus was cooked rursum/rursus in boiling water, and for centuries nobody knew what that meant. The riddle was finally cracked by Joseph Dommer Vehling, in his 1936 translation of “Apicius” (Hill, Chicago):
“This word has caused us some reflection, but the ensuing discovery made it worthwhile. Rursus has escaped the attention of the other commentators. In this case rursus means backwards, being a contraction from revorsum, h.e. reversum. The word is important enough to be observed.”
OK, so we are now supposed to cook asparagus “backwards” in boiling water, but I’m still a bit foggy on the details. Luckily, somehow, Vehling manages to gaze deeply enough between the lines of text to dredge out the answer:
“Apicius evidently has the right way of cooking the fine asparagus. The stalks, after being peeled and washed must be bunched together and tied according to sizes, and the bunches must be set into the boiling water ‘backwards,’ that is, they must stand upright with the heads protruding from the water. The heads will be made tender above the water line by rising steam and will be done simultaneously with the harder parts of the stalks. We admit, we have never seen a modern cook observe this method. They usually boil the tender heads to death while the lower stalks are still hard.”
Here, Vehling and “Apicius” acknowledge the culinary riddle that’s wrapped in the botanical enigma that is asparagus: the fact that one end of the shoot needs less cooking than the other.
This recipe is a direct riff on “Apicius” technique, with just a few modifications. Rather than tie the asparagus with string, I bunch it into a narrow-mouthed pint jar like a bouquet of flowers, and immerse it backwards “in calidam.”
You want the boiling water level to be about two inches lower than the top of the jar. And the jar should be filled with a mix of heavy cream and butter, a clove of garlic, a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of nutmeg and salt.
With this recipe, there is no reason to break or trim the ends. It doesn’t really matter how tough they are going in, because they soften plenty as they cook, with their cut ends against the hot glass at the bottom of the jar of simmering cream. The asparagus tips, meanwhile, dangle far above in the gentle steam, warming more than cooking.
When the butt ends are soft enough — about 20 minutes — I cook the tips by covering the pot with a tight lid, checking obsessively until they are perfect.
Alternatively, simply cook the asparagus bouquet until the tips droop over like a fistful of wilted dandelions, and call it good.
Or, give the tips nothing but gentle steam, and eat them warm and raw. The heat is enough to volatilize a range of flavors, from musky to minty, and the crunch is still audible. At the other end of the shoot, what had been tough and chewy is now soft, and impregnated with creamy garlic butter. The tips, of course, can be dipped into the jar as well. And the asparagus-infused cream sauce should definitely be saved for later. (The butter separates out and can be used on toast).