Diary: Patricia Storace, Asparagus and the Culinary Saint

There are some thirty patron saints of the culinary arts, though, oddly, the ascetic-prizing Christian tradition tends to grant those patronages to women and men who were, at best, uneasy with all that is incarnate. For example, there is St. Macarius, the patron saint of candy makers, elevated because he gave up making candy, and went to live as a hermit in a shack. Or the patron saint of those who serve meals and manage households, St. Martha, who got famously scolded for doing it well. It gets worse. St. Vincent seems to have achieved his patronage of wine and vintners because of the copious amounts of blood he shed during his martyrdom. And St. Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks was, I’m sorry to tell you, cooked himself, on a giant gridiron.

The kitchen, though, like the bedroom, is a point of confluence in the household, where death, birth and rebirth meet. Here what is ancestral and what is yet to come to life encounter each other, the divine and the flesh touch each other.

The patron saint of my own kitchen is Muslim. Ziryab (789-857) lived in both the great cultural capitals of the Islamic world, first in Baghdad, then in Cordoba, where he was King Abd al-Rahman’s exemplary courtier: he was a sublime cook and the greatest musician of Islamic Andalusia. Ziryab was a different kind of saint, a carnal saint, the saint as lover. He took this world in his arms and kissed it, daring to love it while never forgetting that mortals lose what they love. For him, the body was a source of grace as surely as the soul: the jewel case in which the heart reposes.

Ziryab is said to have been a freed slave; his name means blackbird, supposedly referring to both his dark complexion and his beautiful singing voice. He grew to maturity in Baghdad, studying music at the court of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the ruler of Baghdad at its zenith, an omnipresent figure in The Arabian Nights. Ziryab’s teacher was another legendary musician, al-Mawsili, also known for his virtuosity as a cook. A number of his dishes are recorded in the tenth century cookbook of al-Warraq, dedicated to courtly food. (To be precise, I should say al-Mawsili was one of Ziryab’s music teachers, since Ziryab was said to have been visited in his dreams by the supernatural beings called jinn, who taught him their own songs. He would wake late at night, rousing his students to pass on to them the otherworldly songs he’d dreamed.)

The culinary arts were so appreciated at the Abbasid court that both men and women courtiers aspired to have their recipes collected in books. A beautifully conceived recipe was like courtly poetry, or an edible still life painting, a composition presented as a gift or compliment to an official or friend. There were evening dinner parties devoted to awarding prizes to the best dish, accompanied by poems composed and sung about food. Ziryab took the splendor of this musical and gastronomic culture, along with its principles of mutual respect between men and women, with him to Abd al-Rahman’s court in Cordoba. There he would establish a music school open to both women and men; when he died, though all of his eight sons and two daughters were musicians, it was ultimately his daughter ‘Ulaiya who headed the school.

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Ziryab thought deeply about each of our senses, and how to learn through them. He changed the way we hear music and play it. He added a fifth pair of strings to the lute, and played it with an eagle’s talon instead of a wooden pick, to achieve a new range of tones, creating the ancestor of the flamenco guitar. (The greatest modern flamenco guitarist, Paco de Lucía, often called Ziryab’s heir, even his incarnation, paid tribute to his predecessor in his composition, “Ziryab.”)

As one of the sources of music, the body was sacred to him, and he altered the way we inhabit our bodies, creating perfumes, a method of cleansing clothes with rose water and salt, and Europe’s first toothpaste. He translated the passage of time into music, composing musical pieces called nuba to accompany each hour of the day; observing how our bodies respond to the changing seasons, he introduced clothing in fabric and colors that altered as the seasons did.

Ziryab also redesigned the way we eat. He devised the sequence of courses, creating a rhythm of flavor, texture, and portion—soup, or appetizer, followed by a main course, then a dessert. This turned the meal into a way of paying attention, and it is still the pattern of our dinners. He was famous for reimagining the table setting, covering rough wooden tables with tooled leather mats. He understood how the precious metal cups in which wine was then served compromised its taste and camouflaged its color. He abandoned the showy gold and silver vessels for crystal goblets, in order to see, taste, and contemplate the wine at the same time. If you look through that transparent goblet as you sip your wine, you will get a glimpse of Ziryab himself, the illumination he saw in existence, and the beauty we have the potential to bring to it. Because—and I think this was utterly Ziryab’s intention—pouring the wine into glass vessels instead of metal changed the experience of wine drinking, quite literally, into poetry. Descriptions of the way light is reflected through a glass of wine became an essential figure of Andalusian poetry across the centuries, attempted even by a thirteenth-century King of Tunis, as generations of poets found new ways to describe the light Ziryab freed them to see.

He also had the genius to introduce asparagus to Spain’s dinner tables, where it had previously been considered a useful edible weed, but not a great delicacy. Now asparagus is so prized that the Huétor-Tájar province of Granada has been given a kind of culinary coat of arms: a protected asparagus appellation. Thanks to Ziryab, centuries later, a common sight along the highways in early spring is young people selling bunches of fresh-gathered wild asparagus by the side of the road. That carnal saint knew that to change the way we taste would also change what we can see, think, and feel.

Asparagus Ziryab

This simple, elegant dish, to be served as a first course, is a version of a recipe of Madame Loubet, a French cook “with tired eyes and a wan smile,” who served it to Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein in the 1920s. I have altered it in way that I hope would please Madame Loubet and delight Ziryab. It needs:

Two bunches asparagus, about 1 pound (slender stalks are best here, as the sauce coats them more closely and voluptuously)

Four tablespoons butter
Four tablespoons heavy cream
½ cup additional heavy cream
¼ teaspoon salt
Three tablespoons freshly, finely grated Parmesan cheese

Snap the coarse stalks from the spears of asparagus. Tie the spears in bundles with twine and plunge into a pan of boiling salted water until just tender, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the asparagus when cooked to a heated plate in an oven at warming temperature.

Melt four tablespoons of butter (the best available) in a sauté pan. When the butter is melted, add the bundles of asparagus to the pan, and tip in the four tablespoons of heavy cream. Without stirring, tilt the pan in all directions until the asparagus is thickly coated with the butter and cream mixture; this will take three to four minutes. Remove from the heat.

Whip the ½ cup heavy cream with ¼ teaspoon salt; when it is thick and snowy, whip in three tablespoons grated Parmesan (again, the best you can find; the texture of the whipped cream is so fine that the grain and quality of the cheese will be exposed). Remove the asparagus from the pan and arrange on a heated circular serving dish, cutting the twine with kitchen scissors and fanning the spears into a circle with points toward the rim. Place the whipped cream in the center of the dish, and serve before the cream melts, topping each portion with a spoonful of the whipped cream. This will serve four, though it can easily be doubled. I think Ziryab, with his attention to the way the momentary can contain the infinite, would have noticed the metaphor inherent in this dish: the cream melting onto the asparagus, winter yielding to spring.

Patricia Storace’s most recent book is the novel The Book of Heaven, in which the intimate histories of eating and storytelling are also deeply entwined. She is also the author of Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece and a book of poems, HeredityThis is the latest in her series of diaries on cooking and reading for Book Post. Her previous diaries-with-recipes have included biscuits from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s cook and unacknowledged collaborator, Idella Parker, a culinary story from the segregated South; folklore’s Gretel, model for women for whom the kitchen was an acknowledged art; Civil Rights pioneer Lilian Smith’s Southern childhood Christmas; as well Pablo Neruda’s poems-as-delicacies, Louisa May Alcott’s proto-feminist kitchen, and the Madrid restaurant that sheltered the resistance.

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Image: Scene from the thirteenth-century Andalusian-Arabic love story, “The History of Bayâd and Riyâd,” in which the lovers meet through song, eating and drinking wine in the court garden. Maghreb manuscript, 13th century, Vatican Apostolic Library, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons