Asparagus Gratin from “Rules of Civility” (Novel Food No.36)

summary: asparagus from “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles; so many books to read; brief review of “Rules of Civility”; fascinating premise for a book; information about Novel Food;

I’ve often wanted to belong to a book club! But because I get new books from the library (we have less and less room for new books on our bookshelves), it means I can’t always get hold of the latest best sellers that are so often on various book club lists. Or, if I do get hold of them, I don’t really want to read because the books don’t pass the “must grab my attention by the 1st page” rule. So I was thrilled to see the rather open-ended book club that Simona (briciole) and Lisa (Champaign Taste) started in 2007. (How did I miss noticing this until now?!)

I may be late to the party but I’m so excited to be here at last!

Novel Food No.36: Asparagus Gratin from “Rules of Civility”

Asparagus Gratin

[T]he [subway] train gets under way; it comes to one station and then another; people get off and others get on. And under the influence of the cradlelike rocking of the train, […] your mind begins to wander aimlessly over your cares and your dreams; or better yet, it drifts into an ambient hypnosis, where even cares and dreams recede and the peaceful silence of the cosmos pervades.

Earlier this year, I read Amor Towles’ wonderful novel, “A Gentleman from Moscow”. I didn’t want to put the book down and I didn’t want it to end. It is a stunningly beautiful tale. And how. It took me ages to finish because I kept flipping back to read and re-read particularly lovely sections. So, naturally, with Towles’ novel, “Rules of Civility”, I was expecting to be uplifted in the same way.

Alas no. While the “Rules of Civility” was just as compelling, the characters were not quite so charming as those in “A Gentleman from Moscow”; the overall flavour of the New York story is somewhat bleak.

Having said that, the book is still well worth reading. Not to mention that there is an embarrassment of fabulous sounding dishes to make from “Rules of Civility”. The choice for what to make was quite difficult, but considering what time of year it is, the asparagus in chapter eleven is exactly right for Novel Food No. 36.

Because gorgeous looking local asparagus has just started to appear at our vegetable stores. We had some the other night, lightly steamed and drizzled with butter and lemon. It was fabulous.

Of course it was. Simplicity is the key with asparagus, isn’t it?

However, this fontina cheese and bread crumbs idea in chapter eleven of “Rules of Civility” is really too exciting. Considering that, thanks to Jane Mason and Chad Robertson, we now always have on hand the best bread to make the best bread crumbs in the world, we had to try this asparagus dish.

The asparagus arrived with a touch of fanfare, presented tableside in a small copper pan. The individual spears were arranged in perfect order-each identical in length, no two overlapping. On top had been delicately scattered a mixture of buttered bread crumbs and fontina cheese which had been broiled to a crunchy, bubbling brown. The captain served the aparagus with a silver fork and spoon. Then he grated a touch of lemon peel over the plate.
    -Bon appétit.
– Amor Towles, Rules of Civility: A Novel, Chapter eleven

Of course, we made a few changes. We have quite a lot of cheese in the fridge right now – we just got a big block of Mozzarella last Saturday at the weekly outdoor market by the lake. But we didn’t have Fontina Cheese on hand. In fact, we didn’t really know what Fontina Cheese is and had to look it up.

Fontina Val d’Aosta […] is a classic Italian cheese made in the Aosta Valley since the 12th century. […] The texture and flavour of Fontina depends on how long it has been aged. The texture can vary from semi-soft to firm and the flavours from mild and rich to more robust and overpowering. Usually, fontina is aged for 90 days. The interior of fontina is pale cream in colour and riddled with holes known as “eyes”. With a fat content of 45%, the cheese is very rich and creamy which gets nuttier with aging.
–, Fontina Val d’Aosta
Fontina is known for having a very soft and gentle flavor, with a slight nuttiness. […] The melt point of Fontina is relatively low, which makes it a good choice for topping on a meal. […] If you do not have any Fontina on hand, […] Mozzarella may not come to mind immediately when thinking of replacements for fontina, [but] there are many similarities between the two kinds of cheese. Mozzarella is made in Italy, in a similar manner to that of fontina. Fontina is made from cow’s milk and mozzarella is made from the cousin of the cow, Buffalo. The stretch drying process of mozzarella is also very similar to fontina. This leads to the texture and consistency of fontina and mozzarella being very similar. The coloration is also almost identical- to the point where fontina can be mistaken for mozzarella.
– Luisa Davis, On The Gas, Fontina Cheese Substitute: What Can I Use?

Rather than going in search of Fontina, we decided to use some of the giant block of Mozzarella we have on hand, and add a little grated Parmesan to boost its flavour to nuttiness.

The other changes we made were to a.) prepare the bread crumbs in olive oil, b.) not care if the asparagus spears were different lengths, and c.) continue to disregard the note that said to arrange them “in perfect order-each identical in length, no two overlapping”. We also decided against serving them with a silver fork and spoon and used our every-day stainless steel. Even though we have Mum’s silver service. I’m just too lazy to polish it. :stomp:

garnishes for Asparagus GratinTruffle SaltAsparagus Gratin
Asparagus Gratin

It turns out that asparagus doesn’t have to be simple to be delicious.

Taking our cue from the description of the dinner in chapter eleven, rather than stuffing truffles into roast chicken, we sprinkled Truffle Salt onto the chicken T had just grilled on the barbecue. Along with oven-roasted potatoes and grilled lemon slices, we garnished the plates with chives and arugula from the garden.

Dinner was spectacular!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I see from searching that I’m not the first person who, after reading Amor Towles’ “Rules of Civility: A Novel”, has been inspired to prepare one of the described dishes, including two people who made the asparagus:

Rules of Civility: A Novel
by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility Book Cover The story is compelling even though the overall flavour of the story is somewhat bleak. But bleak or not, it’s still worth reading, even if just for the descriptions and beautiful writing!

On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the museum of Modern Art-the first exhibit of the portraits taken by Walker Evans in the late 1930s on the new York City subways with a hidden camera […]
    Here were two single girls from the perfume counter at Macy’s, solidly in their thirties, a little sour with the knowledge that their best years were behind them, riding with eyebrows plucked all the way to the Bronx.
    Here a him; there a her.
    Here the young; there the old.
    Here the dapper; there the drab
The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos.
[Chapter one]
From ‘Lanta, Georgia, he brought a taste of plantation civility to New York that was either going to carry him far or get him in a world of trouble.
[Chapter five]
What was your favorite day of the year? That was one of the beside-the-point questions that we posed to each other at the 21 Club back in January. The snowiest, Tinker had said. Any day that wasn’t in Indiana, Eve had said. My answer? The summer solstice. June twenty-first. The longest day of the year.
[Chapter eleven]
Along Central Park West, the taller apartment buildings jutted over the trees in solitary fashion like commuters on a railroad platform in the hours before the morning rush. The sky was Tiepolo blue. After a week of sudden cold, the leaves had turned, creating a bright orange canopy that stretched all the way to Harlem. It was almost as if the park was a jewel box and the sky was the lid.
[Chapter twenty]
excerpts from Rules of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles

Initially, after reading and re-reading the preface in amazement, I reluctantly stopped reading because I found myself distracted from the story: Were these 1930s subway photos real?

A quick search on the internet reveals that they are indeed real photos. How cool is that?

Here are some of the choices of things to make from “Rules of Civility: A Novel”:

Only as we turned onto Fifty-second Street did I realize that he was taking us to the 21 Club. […] The menu was the largest I had ever seen. It was almost a foot and a half high. I opened it expecting a cavalcade of choices, but there were only ten. Lobster tail. Beef Wellington. Prime rib. The items were handwritten in the generous script of a wedding invitation. […] [W]ithin minutes, the drinks arrived.
    Or rather, three empty glasses arrived. Each had a trio of olives skewered on a pin that was propped on the rim of the glass like an oar on the hull of a rowboat. Casper placed a napkin on top of a silver shaker and rattled it good. Then he carefully began to pour [… with …] the sort of precision that gave one confidence.
I went to make myself some closed-kitchen eggs.
I cracked two eggs in a bowl and whisked them with grated cheese and herbs. I poured them into a pan of heated oil and covered them with a lid. Something about heating the oil and putting on the lid makes the eggs puff upon contact. And they brown without burning. It was the way my father used to prepare eggs for me when I was a girl, though we never ate them for breakfast. They tasted best, he used to say, when the kitchen was closed.
At night, alone at my kitchen table I ate peanut butter on toast, mastered the ruff and slough and waded into the novels of E. M. Forster just to see what all the fuss was about.
The soup was served. It was black bean with a spoonful of sherry.
I took a taxi to the West Village to La Belle Epoque. […] The restaurant took its time coming to life. It filled a few tables. It served some cocktails and lit some cigarettes. It proceeded methodically and unrushed, secure in the knowledge that by nine o’clock it would feel like the center of the universe. I took my time coming to life too.
    I sipped a second champagne and savored my canapés. I had another cigarette. When the waiter returned, I ordered a glass of white wine, asparagus gratin and for the entrée, the specialty of the house: poussin stuffed with black truffle.
I had the house salad—a terrific concoction of iceberg greens, cold blue cheese and warm red bacon. If I were a country, I would have made it my flag.
It’s a funny thing about that meal. All these years later, I remember the oysters I ate at the 21 Club. I remember the black bean soup with sherry at the Beresford when Eve and Tinker had returned from Palm Beach. I remember the salad I had with Wallace at the Park with blue cheese and bacon. And, all too well, I remember the truffle-stuffed chicken at La Belle Epoque. But I don’t remember what we ate that night at Hank’s diner.
– Amor Towles, Rules of Civility: A Novel, Chapters four, five, six, seven, eleven, fourteen, twenty five

All of these sound good, don’t they? In fact, they sound so good that I’m starting to revise my feelings about the novel. I was a tiny bit ambivalent about it before but now, re-reading bits and pieces, I’m really liking it.

I also liked the several references throughout the book to various pieces of literature. Some things I have read (and re-read) already. Some I have not….

I have had E.M. Forster’s novels on my “to read” list for eons. And I love peanut butter on toast. I really really really should “see what all the fuss [is] about” too. Remind me.

peanut butter on toast

Novel Food

Novel Food Inspired by Adam Gopnik’s 2007 article in the New Yorker in 2007, Simona (briciole) and Lisa (Champaign Taste) launched “Novel Food”, looking forward to “hearing interesting literary and culinary stories” from other food bloggers.

There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.
Adam Gopnik, “Cooked Books: Real Food from Fictional Recipes”, New Yorker, 2 April 2007
In the northern hemisphere winter still rules, but not for long: by the time the 36th edition of the culinary/literary event Novel Food ends, it will be spring! In the meantime, as inclement weather keeps us inside, we have a perfect excuse to curl up in our favorite armchair with a book and a steaming mug of tea.

Novel Food is a little voyage of literary discovery and a delightful party featuring literary-inspired dishes contributed by event’s participants. […]

Novel food Join the 36th edition of Novel Food, the literary/culinary event. Submit your post to me by end of Sunday July 7 [2019].
– Simona, briciole

For more information on Novel Food, including how to participate, please see


Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation”, 1748
GeoWashington Rules of Civility - Finis
110. Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
– hand copied by George Washington (1732-1799), “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation”, 1748

To learn more about The Rules of Civility, please see Stacie Moats’ Library of Congress article, George Washington: Living the “Rules of Civility” and Maria Popova’s article, 14-Year-Old George Washington’s 110 Commandments for Cultivating Character at

This entry was posted in food & drink, Novel Food, side, vegetables on by .

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3 responses to “Asparagus Gratin from “Rules of Civility” (Novel Food No.36)

  1. Claudia (Honey From Rock)

    Great review, and I had forgotten reading Rules of Civility, and now actually would like to re-read it, as well as A Gentleman from Moscow. Thanks, and your delicious asparagus with all the references were terrific.

    Thank you, Claudia. Do re-read Rules of Civility. I found it really interesting how my perception of it changed as I was writing up this post and leafing through the notes I hastily scrawled down as I read it the first time. That’s the beauty of a Book Club, isn’t it? – Elizabeth

  2. Simona

    I have been wondering about this book, after enjoying A Gentleman in Moscow tremendously (I am still hoping Kenneth Branagh will make a movie from it), so thank you for your review. I love your perspective: asparagus is indeed delicious prepared either simply or in a more complex dish. Thank you for contributing to Novel Food :)

    Thank YOU for hosting, Simona. – Elizabeth

  3. Debra Eliotseats

    I’m with Simona on hoping KB will star in this. Please check out Cook the Books Club as well. (Simona and Claudia are cohosts as well.)

    I know what you both mean, Debra. But I’m of two minds on it – I really really liked “A Gentleman in Moscow” and always worry that movie adaptations will fall short. We just watched episode 1 and half of episode 2 of the Netflix “Anne with an E” series – supposedly based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s lovely book “Anne of Green Gables” and have had to abort; far too many liberties were taken with the story. – Elizabeth


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