Vital Update on the Asparagus Fleet

If you know, you know.

Thanks to an update from a mysterious figure in the shadows, I was prompted to start searching again for the true origins of the Asparagus Fleet myth (or is it a myth? Maybe it’s real! No classicist I’ve told the story to believes it’s real, but we could all be missing the secret wisdom! Who knows!?). And I have an update. I still don’t believe I have pinpointed the genesis of this elite squadron of vegetable-toting Augustan ships and/or chariots, but I have an earlier source for it, which exonerates Pam Brunning of the International Wine and Food Society of the crime of inventing it. That source is an article, now available online but apparently first published in print as early as April 1999 (more than 10 years before Brunning’s magazine article, which was cited by Wikipedia and probably spread from there to the rest of the asparagus fandom), in the Deseret News, a Mormon newspaper based in Salt Lake City. Said article can be found here. The author’s name, unfortunately, is not listed online and I might have to track down a print copy to get that information [EDIT: one week later, the article now does have a byline. I don’t know why it didn’t before, or what has changed since then. The original writer was apparently food editor Jean Williams, who has unfortunately died in the 23 years since the article’s publication, meaning I cannot pursue her for answers.]. The article also doesn’t say where the asparagus fleet came from. Newspaper articles don’t cite their sources, because by convention the article is the source; whatever the journalist writes is assumed to carry the authority of the paper’s reputation and editorial standards. This works (…up to a point) when a journalist is reporting on current events. When they dip their toes into history… not so much.

Let’s look at the text of the relevant section of the article (a feature on asparagus with a couple of asparagus recipes, just like the dozens of more recent articles that have also picked up the myth):

Continue reading “Vital Update on the Asparagus Fleet”




last night, I was listening to the latest episode of I Chews You, the podcast about cooking and eating Pokémon (…just go with it), as I do of a Wednesday evening.

One of the hosts, Ian, made reference to Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, saying that he was very fond of asparagus. Augustus, it is said, used to tell people when he wanted something done fast that it should be “quicker than cooking asparagus,” and was so enamoured with the vegetable that he commissioned an entire fleet of ships to seek out the best sources of asparagus in the world for supplying the city of Rome. My eyebrows, dear reader, assumed a posture of heightened readiness.

I will stress, before going on, that I intend here to cast no shade on Ian, who is lovely and has even helped me with research on a previous occasion. If you google “asparagus fleet” there are so many websites that mention it – dozens, certainly; it even made it onto the official QI Twitter account – that if that’s all you’re going on, it looks pretty legit. Unfortunately for me, it’s not all I’m going on, thanks to my secret double life as a PhD student in classical studies.