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When I was growing up in 1950s and 1960s Australia, asparagus, mushrooms and artichokes were luxury vegetables and came in tins. They were not available fresh in the shops. My favourite was asparagus. We had it twice a year, the cut variety at Christmas when one tin fed numerous people as part of the salad. Birthdays were different. Then it was the birthday boy or girl's prerogative to have the greater share of a tin of asparagus spears. The most common method of serving tinned asparagus was to drain it of its juices and eat cold. There was another way, when I was in my late teens and dating youths who took me to sophisticated cafes; and that was heated and served on toast. The Shiralee Coffee Shop menu in 1965 listed among its various dishes, Asparagus on Toast as a 'Tempting light snack' for 4 shillings. [1] The asparagus was from a tin.

When I was 23 we moved to London. I was newly married and my middle-class background and childhood had neglected to equip me with experience in handling money, shopping wisely and coping with unforeseen eventualities. And I was new to cooking. I used as my reference The Robert Carrier Cookbook. It was my bible and went with me everywhere. In its pages were recipes for all manner of dishes, with many of their ingredients not familiar in Australia. London's fresh produce shops and markets stocked them though, including fresh asparagus, and Carrier's recipes provided an invitation to buy and try.

It didn't take long to realise that the combined income of a shop assistant (me) and a post-doctoral student (my husband) fell far short of providing daily dishes that involved fillet of beef, fresh salmon or pheasant, and a range of fresh 'luxury' vegetables.

In fact, the ingredients that we could afford for daily meals were not mentioned in Carrier's cookbook. So I bought and became acquainted with 101 Ways with Mince. A simple little paperback with no fancy ingredients, it claimed to provide '101 nights on mince'. And so it did. For six nights of the week we ate a variety of mince and egg dishes, served with the cheapest of vegetables - cabbage, brussel sprouts, turnips and potatoes.

But on the seventh night we ate from the Carrier book. I cooked coq-au-vin, canard braise à l'orange and tournedos en croûte, accompanied by fresh vegetables; tiny baby potatoes, mushrooms of several varieties, artichokes, asparagus and spinach - real spinach, not silver beet.

The meal I remember best was a simple dish of roasted quails, one each, with fresh asparagus and sweet nutty baby potatoes. It was worth the preceding six days of cottage pie, spag. bol., savoury mince or meatballs served with mashed potato and cabbage.

Anne Atkinson

Ways with asparagus: An historical overview

1950s: Rural Western Australia
Refrigerate one tin of asparagus cuts until cold. Open tin and drain juices. Serve in a small shallow dish or, better still and in the name of justice, apportion the pieces so that each diner receives an equal amount.

1970s: London
Asparagus variations [2]

Either boil or steam and serve with the following dressings:

  1. Sprinkle blanched toasted almonds and melted butter over hot cooked asparagus.
  2. Add diced hard-boiled egg to a well-flavoured cream sauce and pour over hot cooked asparagus.
  3. Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley to 1/4 pound of melted butter, and pour over hot cooked asparagus.
  4. Make a well-flavoured vinaigrette sauce; add finely chopped hard-boiled egg, parsley and gherkins, and pour over cold cooked asparagus. Serve as an appetiser or separate salad course.
2018: Perth Western Australia
Trim the ends of a bunch of fresh asparagus. Cut or snap each stalk into two or three pieces. Steam for a few minutes over rapidly boiling water until just tender. Rinse in cold water and add to a green salad. Serve with a freshly made balsamic and oil dressing.

1. It also provided a 'Crayfish salad' for 8 shillings but not an asparagus salad.
2. Carrier, R. (1967). The Robert Carrier Cookbook, First Sphere Books, UK, p.436.