Herbs Put Magic in Your Food
We might well learn a lesson from the example of the English matron who usually considers her kitchen incomplete without a dozen or more sweet herbs, either powdered, or in decoction, or preserved in both ways.
A glance into a French or a German culinary department would probably show more than a score; but a careful search in an American kitchen would rarely reveal as many as half a dozen, and in the great majority probably only parsley and sage would be brought to light. Yet these humble plants possess the power of rendering even unpalatable and insipid dishes piquant and appetizing, and this, too, at a surprisingly low cost. Indeed, most of them may be grown in an out-of-the-way corner of the garden, or if no garden be available, in a box of soil upon a sunny windowsill - a method adopted by many foreigners living in tenement houses in New York and Jersey City.
Certainly they may be made to add to the pleasure of living and, as Solomon declares, better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox with contention.
The predicament in which many thousand people are today. We have skinny purses, voracious appetites and mighty yearnings to make the best possible impression within our means. Perhaps having been invited out, we learn by actual demonstration that the herbs are culinary magicians which convert cheap cuts and scraps into toothsome dainties. We are thus aroused to the fact that by using herbs we can afford to play host and hostess to a larger number of hungry and envious friends than ever before.
Maybe it is mainly due to these yearnings and to the memories of mothers and grandmothers famous dishes that so many inquiries concerning the propagation, cultivation, curing and uses of culinary herbs are asked of authorities on gardening and cookery; and maybe it is because no one has really loved the herbs enough to publish a book on the subject. That herbs are easy to grow I can abundantly attest, for I have grown them all. I can also bear ample witness to the fact that they reduce the cost of high living, if by that phrase is meant pleasing the palate without offending the purse.
What are those plants near the kitchen? They are mothers sweet herbs. We have never seen them on the table. They never played leading roles such as those of the cabbage and the potato. They are merely members of the cast which performed the small but important parts in the production of the pleasing tout ensemblesoup, stew, sauce, or saladthe remembrance of which, like that of a well-staged and well-acted drama, lingers in the memory long after the actors are forgotten.
Probably no culinary plants have during the last 50 years been so neglected. Especially during the ready-to-serve food campaign of the closed quarter century did they suffer most. But they are again coming into their own. Few plants are so easily cultivated and prepared for use. With the exception of the onion, none may be so effectively employed and none may so completely transform the left-over as to tempt an otherwise balky appetite to indulge in a second serving without being urged to perform the homely duty of eating it to save it. Indeed, sweet herbs are, or should be the boon of the housewife, since they make for both pleasure and economy. The soup may be made of the most wholesome, nutritious and even costly materials; the fish may be boiled or baked to perfection; the joint or the roast and the salad may be otherwise faultless, but if they lack flavor they will surely fail in their mission, and none of the neighbors will plot to steal the cook, as they otherwise might did she merit the reputation that she otherwise might, by using culinary herbs.
This doleful condition may be prevented and the cook enjoy an enviable esteem by the judicious use of herbs, singly or in combination. It is greatly to be regretted that the uses of these humble plants, which seem to fall lower than the dignity of the title vegetable, should be so little understood by intelligent American housewives.
But it is not too late to learn the good old ways over again and enjoy the good old culinary dainties. Whoever relishes the summer cups that cheer but do not inebriate may add considerably to his enjoyment by using some of the sweet herbs. Spearmint adds to lemonade the pleasing pungency it as readily imparts to a less harmful but more notorious beverage. The blue or pink flowers of borage have long been famous for the same purpose, though they are perhaps oftener added to a mixture of honey and water, to grape juice, raspberry vinegar or strawberry acid. All that is needed is an awakened desire to re-establish home comforts and customs, then a little later experimentation will soon fix the herb habit.
But sweet herbs may be made to serve another pleasing, an æsthetic purpose. Many of them may be used for ornament. A bouquet of the pale pink blossoms of thyme and the delicate flowers of marjoram, the fragrant sprigs of lemon balm mixed with the bright yellow umbels of sweet fennel, the finely divided leaves of rue and the long glassy ones of bergamot, is not only novel in appearance but in odor. In sweetness it excels even sweet peas and roses. Mixed with the brilliant red berries of barberry and multiflora rose, and the dark-green branches of the hardy thyme, which continues fresh and sweet through the year, a handsome and lasting bouquet may be made for a midwinter table decoration,
If this book shall instill or awaken in its readers the wholesome though cupboard love that the culinary herbs deserve both as permanent residents of the garden and as masters of the kitchen, it will have accomplished the object for which it was written.