Q: I recently inherited some miscellaneous old silver eating and serving utensils from my great aunt who passed away earlier this year. Although most of it is self-explanatory as to its intended use, there was one utensil which is a mystery (photo enclosed). Could you tell me what it is and what it was used for?
A: You will be happy to know you have inherited a very collectible, individual Victorian or early Edwardian silver (or silver-plated) asparagus tong. The background for its creation is this: Asparagus was originally believed to have been grown by the Romans as early as 200 BCE. At that time, it was not called asparagus, but referred to as “sparrow grass” or “sparagrass.” It was not all that popular as a regular menu item, until Louis XIV, who apparently liked it, revived it during his reign.
The earliest known individual servers, which date back to the mid-18th century, were more of a scissor-type tong with long thin “arms.” The one you inherited has wider “legs” which dates it more likely to 1909 but it is still referred to as Victorian. This type of asparagus tong was replaced by the late 19th century with a “shovel” type asparagus fork, which had blunted tines so as not to damage the delicate skin on the asparagus spear.
I am not certain what precipitated this, but during the early 20th Century, Europeans began eating “properly prepared” asparagus spears with their fingers. While deemed appropriate in America, few diners chose nor now choose to follow that procedure. The fork and knife are used instead.
It is especially critical to use a fork and knife if the asparagus is served with any type of sauce, or even butter, or if the asparagus appears to be less than slightly crisp. There is nothing more unappetizing than watching a diner struggle to take a bite from a limp asparagus spear, dripping with butter. Messy fingers are also never appealing to other diners. If in doubt, allow the hostess to initiate what she feels is the proper manner in which to eat the asparagus based on how she has prepared it.
Dianne Isbell is a local contributing writer. Send your etiquette questions to Dianne Isbell at Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.