herbs in winter, er, spring

by bam

okay, so five minutes ago it was winter. and most likely, another three and it’ll be winter again. last week at this time, out my window, it was the arctic tundra. only thing missing was the mush dogs.

now, it’s a vast ocean of blkkh. isthmuses of scant white surrounded by sog (the ground when it’s turning to sponge). small continents of sooty dirt gray melting inch by inch into more sog.

but the slant of the sun, and the scant touch of warm in its rays, sends message to brain cells: stay alert. there might be an end to the winter.

now i might be an avowed winter baby, love nothing so much as a warm woolen sweater, my nose pressed to the glass, watching the cotton puffs fall from the sky. but even the winteriest among us need a small pharmacopoeia of sorts to get through.

my elixir of choice, the one i take daily, multiple times a day if i can, is the herb. not dried in a bottle. not crumbly inside of a jar. but real and alive, bright green on my sill.

i’m telling you the thing that gets me through winter, the thing that keeps red blood in my veins, is the three pots of herbs that grow just to the west of my faucet.

they keep me, well, green. i snip and i sprinkle all winter. i am plowing deep into faux summer, even if only through the gardeny taste that swirls on my tongue. fresh and just picked, right here in the months of the snows.

i bite into the clean of cilantro. i melt for the tender tendrils of thyme. i spice things up with my ruffly basil.

i make believe it’s my garden. i clip and i water. i turn to the rays of the sun, so my herbs they can be coaxed to trigger the chlorophyll. (or however that works.)

but still, i am sorry to say, with regular regularity, my herb pots they shrivel and die. i might get a few weeks out of the basils. the lavender rarely lasts a few days. and the thyme it takes time before it turns crumbly and brown. not unlike those herbs in the bottles. but eventually it indeed turns to crumbly.

and i, sisyphean in style and psyche, i trod a path right back to the produce patch at my grocery. pluck myself one more pot of basil at $2.29. not a high price for midwinter sanity. if in fact it’s keeping me sane. (those around me might tell you it’s not.)

i do know it’s keeping me pink–pink in the cheek, pink in the heart. i eat them for breakfast and dinner. snip them on cheese on my toast. toss with abandon into the stew. adorn like a madwoman each plate, basil poking from the mashed potatoes, thyme branches strewn like the wreath of a hero atop the breast of the chicken.

and if i manage time for some lunch, i eat them then too. i reach in the drawer for my kitchen shears, pretend that i’m clipping an orchard of espaliered apple when only it’s a 4-inch expanse of basil, or the lone stem of lemony balm.

if you’ve been poking around here awhile you might have noticed a trend: i am a girl who leans heavy on growing things. i am a girl who needs gardens. even in the dark days of winter.

so i strongly advise (and i’m not one for advising) that if you can, if you don’t mind the suggestion, you dash to the store, any old supermarket, and you buy the start of your garden.

these herbs, they have history. it’s not like they’ve just been invented. they’ve been around for a very long time, and they seem to have a solid reputation for making for all sorts of miracles.

a quick run through the herbalist, in alphabetical order:

basil, they gave as house gifts in renaissance england because, well, it kept the house flies away.

bay they once planted to protect from lightning strikes. the caesars were certain it kept conspiracies, hmm, at bay. in the 1700s, in england, it was thought to do in the devil. the priestesses of apollo chewed a wad of the stuff before spewing a prophesy. not long after, wise folk prescribed placing it under your pillow to bring on dreams, prescient in nature.

chervil, a sure cure for hiccups. sipped in a tea, that is. (sipped in a broth on holy thursday, it reminded the sippers of the resurrection of christ. says so right here in a book.)

coriander is one of which to be careful. ol’ pliny, the first-century agrarian, cautioned against too much of the seed, which he found had narcotic tendencies.

dill, diluted in water, is the thing to soothe colicky babies.

lemon balm is a tad schizophrenic. on the one hand, it was recommended to scholars to sharpen their memory; on the other hand, it was doled out to insomniacs who found slumber in its sleep-inducing powers.

marjoram, thought to have been touched by venus, is big in the love potion department. italians bunched it in nosegays and gave it away to banish sadness. how lovely.

mint will whiten your teeth.

oregano is boldly medicinal, prescribed over the ages for everything from toothaches to opium addiction.

parsley was first eaten by romans; the greeks long before them made wreaths for weddings and sports games, but only fed it to horses.

rosemary, get this, was put under the nuptial mattress to a.) increase faithfulness, and b.) keep away insects and mildew. who knew?

tarragon, thought to fight off fatigue, was slipped into shoes in the middle ages just before trodding off on a pilgrimage. a pre-cursor to dr. scholl, i suppose.

lastly comes thyme, an all-purpose herb if ever there was one. athenians made liquors of it, bathed in it, burned it in temples. egyptians embalmed with it. i thought it was good on my cottage cheese.

and so, there you go, an alphabet of herbs for your daily consumption. grow them. sniff them. stuff them under your mattress. not a bad sport for the winter.

now, i was going to share a little herb recipe here. i had oh so many choices. but i swear i’ve run out of room. so i promise, the lazy susan this weekend, will proudly display one of these choices. you get to vote. 1. sage apple cake. 2. baked snapper with onion and balm. 3. simple tomato sauce. all courtesy of “herbs in the kitchen: a celebration of flavor,” by carolyn dille (i’m not making that up) and susan belsinger. vote and vote often. this is chicago, you know…..