The first recipe in Randolph’s collection is a recipe for Asparagus Soup. This is fitting since asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), a perennial flowering plant, is one of the first spring vegetables. Cultivated since ancient times, asparagus traveled to North America with the earliest colonists. In 1685, Pennsylvania colony founder William Penn included asparagus in a comprehensive list of crops that grew well in the colony. However, asparagus was not widespread in the United States until the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Asparagus frequently appears in both printed and manuscript recipe collections compiled in the eastern U.S. from the first half of the nineteenth century. In The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child recommended boiling the vegetable for “fifteen to twenty minutes; half an hour if old.” Eliza Leslie included a recipe for Asparagus Soup very similar to Randolph’s in Directions for Cookery. Based on Leslie’s instructions, it appears a green color to the soup was highly desirable, and Leslie advises adding “a handful of spinach” pounded in a mortar “about a quarter hour before the soup is done boiling.” Catharine Beecher suggested serving boiled asparagus on buttered toast in Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, still an excellent light, spring supper. I like to serve it with hollandaise.
Asparagus season in Virginia lasts from April to June. While these first green vegetables are welcome in the early days of spring, the palate longs for variety by the end of often prolific the season. In 1763, Mary Holyoke of Salem, Massachusetts, recorded the first asparagus harvest in her diary as May 10th. By the end of the season in mid-June, she had harvested “1836 heads in all.” Recipes for asparagus soup are the most common in printed and manuscript recipe collections alike. Perhaps as a respite for boiled asparagus on toast.
This recipe, the first from Randolph’s collection I attempted, we enjoyed last spring when we were thoroughly sick of the asparagus that kept appearing in our farm box. It was a welcome respite from our usual methods of preparing asparagus: steamed, roasted, or baked into a frittata. It makes a satisfying light lunch or supper paired with a salad and a bit of good bread if, as hard as it may be to imagine now, we find ourselves inundated with asparagus in the future.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 13.
Adapted by RA Snell
- One bunch of asparagus
- Slice of bacon
- Small onion, diced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup water or broth
- 1 cup chopped or shredded cooked chicken
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- ½ cup milk
1. Peel the outer layer from your asparagus with a vegetable peeler or knife. Cut one inch off the top of each stalk and place the tops in cool water. Chop the reminder of the asparagus into small pieces.
2. Place a slice of bacon in a small sauce pan, once it has started to cook add the diced onion. Cook together until the onion is soft, remove the bacon and add one cup of water or broth and the chopped asparagus. Simmer together until the asparagus is soft.
3. Place the simmered mixture in a blender and blend until combined. Return to the sauce pan and simmer gently with the asparagus tops and chicken.
4. Melt butter in a small saucepan and add the flour. Mix well and cook together for one minute. Add the milk a little at a time stirring well after each addition. After all the milk is added, combine with the asparagus mixture.
5. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Chop the reserved bacon and use as a garnish.
 Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel Wood, 1838), 34.
 Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery (Philadelphia: Cary & Hart, 1840), 35.
 Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836), 75.
 Mary Holyoke Diary, 58, 59, quoted inSarah F. McMahon, “All Things in Their Proper Season”: Seasonal Rhythms of Diet in Nineteenth Century New England,” Agricultural History, Vol. 63, No. 2, Climate, Agriculture, and History (Spring, 1989), pp. 150.