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Davis, California

Friday, June 9, 2023

Column: All about herbs

Well, it’s spring. And it … is … glorious. The breezes are a-blowing, the tall white clouds are tumbling in the sky, and irises and snowdrops are blooming in every front yard. Yes, it’s spring in Davis, and in spring this young woman’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of herbs. The culinary kind, of course. Don’t be vulgar.

You guys, I love fresh herbs. They’re easy to grow and harvest and they make any meal fancy-shmancy. Imagine yourself in the kitchen, Billie Holiday crooning gently from your MacBook speakers, as you pick chervil and parsley for a salad, or roughly chop oregano and toss it into your pasta sauce with a carefree hand. Life is good in a well-stocked kitchen, and fresh herbs are a big step in a delicious direction.

Before we get there, though, I want to drop some science on you.  First of all, what makes something an herb? For our purposes, an herb is the leafy, aromatic part of a plant used for food or medicine. Herbs aren’t spices, which are all the non-leafy parts of plants like flower buds (cloves), bark (cinnamon) or stigmas (shout-out to my girl saffron). But they are delicious.

You probably already know that hot peppers developed their spiciness as a defense against hungry birds and bugs. Herbs did something similar. Most herbs get their distinctive taste from particular chemicals, like thymol in thyme or myrcene in bay leaves. These chemicals aren’t meant to be delicious, though. Actually, they’re useful to the plant for their ability to repel bugs and animals. But these leafy lovelies could not have predicted that their self-defense strategy would make them even more appealing to hungry humans. Haha on you, stupid plants! Humans ftw!

Fun fact! In the UK, they pronounce the word “herb” with a hard h, like “hhhhhherb.” Oh Britain, you so crazy.

How about some history? The first medical treatise written in recognizable English is called “The Leech Book of Bald” and dates to the early 10th century. And when I say “recognizable English” I mean horrible Anglo-Saxon, with words like “claefnunga.” I’m not kidding; one version I found actually used the word “claefnunga.”

Anyway, “The Leech Book of Bald” is full of herbal remedies, many involving herbs we now use mostly for cooking. Of course, the majority of them are completely insane. It promises to cure things like fractured skulls, impotence and strokes — which for the loony Anglo-Saxons were the result of execution-style elf shootings. And while a lot of the remedies involve drinking crushed pearls in wine, or wearing amulets full of arsenic, or similar foolishness, some sound kind of delicious, like the one with egg whites, honey, fennel and mint. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Oh, also? It prescribes leeches for legitimately everything, from intestinal worms to freckles. Come on now.

But enough with the science and history. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about where to get herbs and what to do with them. My suggestion? Grow your own, bro. Get a terracotta pot and seeds from Ace, snag compost from a friend and get planting. Or if that’s too much of a time investment, just steal.

Well, not steal, exactly. But there are herbs growing in public spaces all around Davis, if you just look carefully. Rosemary bushes are running wilder than sheltered freshmen on campus. I sometimes find mint in weird places. The Salad Bowl Garden by the PES building has beautiful parsley and they love to share. Go check it out!

As for what to do with fresh herbs, you’re limited only by your own imagination. Put thyme in your scrambled eggs! Put tarragon in your beans! Put dill in everything! But if you need a little direction, here’s a nom-licious and simple recipe my friend picked up on her great-uncle’s farm in Sicily.

Boil pasta. Roughly tear up a few handfuls of mint, basil and parsley. Finely grate a little garlic and toss everything with plenty of olive oil and salt. Maybe even some ricotta if you’re feeling fancy. Now tear into that yumminess like there’s no tomorrow. Hooray, herbs!

If you’d like to share more bizarre Anglo-Saxon remedies, contact KATELYN HEMPSTEAD at khempstead@ucdavis.edu.