Asparagus

G. K. Chesterton


New Witness, 18th June 1914

At about twenty-one minutes past two today I suddenly saw that asparagus is the secret of aristocracy. I was trying to put long limp stalks into my mouth, when the idea came into my head; and the stalk failed to do so. I do not refer to any merely metaphorical and superficial comparisons which could easily be made between them. We might say that most of the organism was left dead white, merely that a little button at the top might be bright green. We might draw the moral that average aristocrats are made out much stronger than they are; and illustrate it from average asparagi. They say that any stick is good enough to beat a dog with; but did anyone ever try to beat a dog with a stick of asparagus? We might draw the moral that aristocratic traditions are made out much more popular than they really were. 'Norman' gets mispronounced as English. In this way three French leopards were somehow turned into British lions. And in this way also the solemn word Asparagus, which means nothing so far as I know, was turned by the populace into 'sparrowgrass', which means two of the most picturesque things in the world. Asparagus, which I presume to have been the name of a Roman pro-consul, Marcus Asparagus Esculens, or what not, never deserved such luck as to lose its origin in two things so true and common as the bold birds of the town and the green democracy of the fields. Or again, we might say of sticks of asparagus that they have often lost their heads, and we might say the same of aristocrats. Both heads have been bitten off by the guillotine before now. But to complete the parallel we must maintain that the head of the aristocrat was the best part of him; and this is often hard to maintain. But, indeed, I do not base the view upon any such fancies from phraseology. Far deeper in earth are the roots of asparagus.

The one essential of an aristocracy is to be in advance of its age. That is, there must be something new known to a few. There must be a password; and it must always be a new password. Moreover, it must be, by its nature, an irrational password, for anything quite rational might rapidly be calculated even by the uninitiated. In the same way it is essential to any social observance that involves a social distinction, that the observance should be, in this sense at least, artificial. That is, you can only know the observance as the soldier knows the password, because he has been told.

The working instance best known to us of the middle classes is the old arbitrary distinction about how to eat asparagus. Now, excluding cannibalism and the habit of eating sand (about which I can offer no opinion) there is really nothing one can eat which is less fitted to be eaten with the fingers than asparagus. It is long; it is greasy; it is loose and liable to every sort of soft yet sudden catastrophe; it is always eaten with some sort of oily sauce; and its nice conduct would involve the powers of a professional juggler confirmed with some practice in climbing the greasy pole. Most things could quite easily be eaten with one's fingers. Cold beef could quite easily be eaten with one's fingers; or simply with one's teeth. I have seldom seen a noble cheese without an impulse merely to fix my fangs in it. New potatoes could be eaten with the fingers as cleanly as Easter eggs; and whitebait might as well be shovelled into our open mouths by a Whitebait Machine, for all the use we make of a knife and fork to dissect them. We could easily eat fish-cakes as we eat seed cake. Cold Christmas pudding is a substance with all the majesty of coloured marble; far cleaner, stronger and more coherent than any ordinary bread or biscuit. Yet all these we are supposed to approach through the intervention of a little stunted sword or a stumpy trident. Only this one tiresome, toppling vegetable, I eat between my finger and thumb. I should be better off as a giraffe eating the top of a palm tree: it doesn't want any holding up.

We will not exaggerate. Eating soup with the fingers, the young student should not attempt; and sauces, custards and even curries are no field for the manual labourer. I would not eat stewed rhubarb with my fingers, or, indeed, with any instrument that science could devise. Even with things involving treacle, I have not a good touch. But, while strictly avoiding anything like exaggeration or frivolity, I still note that the point of asparagus is that it is not the food, among other foods, specially fitted to the fingers. In other words, the principle could not have been deduced from abstract reason, or have grown out of the general instincts of men. It could not have been custom: that is why it was etiquette.

The brotherhood of man is a fact which in the long run wears down all other facts. Therefore, a privileged class, if it would avoid sliding naturally back into the body of mankind, must keep up an incessant excitement about new projects, new cultures and new prejudices, new skirts and stockings. It must tell a new tale every day or perish, like the lady of the Arabian Nights. Tennyson, who was too much touched with this aristocratic--or snobbish--Futurism, wrote, 'Lest one good custom should corrupt the world', which really means lest everybody should learn the right way of eating asparagus. And so, out of luxury and waste and weariness, the fever they call Progress came into the world.

Do you tell me they don't eat asparagus with their fingers now? Do I not know that in some of the best houses they have little tongs for each person, which are charming? Have I not heard that asparagus is now lowered into the open mouth on a string, or shot into the mouth with a small gun, or eaten with the toes, or not eaten at all? No; I do not know, that is what I wish to point out. They have changed the password.


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