I am not sure what it is about this time of year that I find myself thinking about herbs. Maybe it is the surprise visit I found in my outdoor gardening area the past few weeks as what I thought would be empty buckets began to reveal hearty chives, mint, and basil. At the same time, I have found myself thinking about how much my relationship with herbs has changed over the last few years. I can remember a time when everything was just a spice and you found them all in bottles in aisle. I never stopped to look at the fresh herbs in the produce section or consider planting them in my own yard. Yet here I am with a completely new relationship with herbs. I now find myself spending a considerable amount of time exploring the herbs in the produce section of my market and, when I am able to leave the house, looking at herb plants at the garden center. I have come to appreciate the vast difference in flavor between dried and fresh herbs. I would not go so far as to say I am an herb expert, however, my appreciation and relationship with herbs has evolved over time.
Unlike some other ingredients, one of the things I have come to realize with herbs is that there are no rules. I can chop them, use them whole, or puree them in a sauce. I have been coming to understand that herbs that are leafy in nature, such as cilantro or do better when I add them towards the end of the cooking time. Other herbs such as thyme and oregano tend to do better when I add them earlier on. They each have their own personality and taste and it tends to change depending on how they are used. Each has its own story to tell.
Stories have also been told about herbs. In many faith traditions, they play an important part in spiritual healing and evolution. A Mexican creation story talks of how people were born out of cornmeal. The Abenaki people of Guatemala are told they were carved from an ash tree and came into the world green and growing. To this day, they give thanks for the gifts of creation, using tobacco as an offering. In a number of traditions, sage is used to purify individuals and spaces and bless groups of people.
I remember growing up how we used to have bitter herbs, maror, as part of the Passover Sedar. It was to symbolize the hardships the Jews had gone through during their time of slavery and to show compassion and solidarity with others who are suffering. Herbs have historically held a place of value and significance in faith traditions. For example, in the Hebrew book of Proverbs (15:17 it tells how herbs and compassion trump the meat of a fattened ox. “Better a dish of herbs when love is there, then a fattened ox and hatred to go with it.” Islamic sects use herbs, water, oil, and ornaments during Ramadan, such as dates, hibiscus flowers and miswak, a specific tree twig, to lift spirits and bring calmness. Hildegard of Bingen, a Christian mystic, taught that one’s healthy is rooted in the balance of water, herbs, flowers, stars, and the sky.
Some herbs such as garlic have a long history. Garlic was prized by the Israelites. They complained of missing it after they left Egypt. “We remember….the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” [Numbers 11:4-6] During the Middle Ages, it was a common Christian tradition to carry garlic as a good luck charm that could ward off demons and vampires. Now scientific research has linked the consumption of garlic to various health benefits. Perhaps we have something to learn from the wisdom of the ancients.
In the meantime, I am going to continue to enjoy the herbs, which have recreated themselves in my garden and consider planting some other herbs and edible flowers, which attract love such as daisies, pansies, geraniums, and lavender. One can never have enough love in one’s life.