Summer 2012, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 inches
Last spring I introduced you to my sister Mimi, a gardener and cook living on Straw Dog Farm, her home of over thirty years in central Missouri. I am pleased that she will contribute to this blog with the occasional piece about her life in the garden.
It can feel difficult to navigate these troubled waters. Crises on many fronts. Pain and anger, death and sickness. Exhaustion. I remind myself I’m a tiny cog in this machine we call our world, that I have a part to play, and I need to do it well to contribute to the smooth running of this machine. So I work harder, smile more and feel grateful for my good life, as I celebrate us all.
My culinary herb garden began its life 30 years ago. It has become a temple, of sorts, to my love and appreciation for the magic herbs give to food. The most humble of meals becomes a taste and visual treat with the addition of parsley, cilantro, or any of the other herbs people the world over have discovered and honor. If cooks knew how easily most herbs grow, our meals would taste richer.
Every year I try to add another herb to one of the formal beds or along the edges, where rougher herbs like epazote can ramble. It’s wonderful to see the delight on a friend’s face when they recognize an herb from their homeland. I especially remember, Saori, a young Japanese woman, who shouted enthusiastically when she saw beef steak plant, “Shiso, shiso! You have shiso!” And she proceeded later, to make tempura batter and show us how her family eats this herb. And it does taste like beef steak.
The garden sits about 200 feet from the kitchen. When I have guests and realize I forgot to pick the tarragon or basil, dill or cilantro, I’ll ask my friend to please run out to the herb garden and bring back a handful. Suddenly their eyes glaze over. “You mean out there by the sauna?” Yes, I’ll reply as I cook another tortilla. After 10 minutes I’ll rush out to the garden and see them puzzling, walking around in somewhat of a trance, with several herbs in their hand. I then realize I should’ve had them watch the fire as I fetched the herb. It’s a big, strange world out there to the uninitiated used to buying herbs in plastic containers with labels. Now, however, with the addition of my new ceramic labels, the guess work has disappeared.
Our sister Susan discovered pottery years ago but when she retired she had time to play and explore the possibilities. She’s made beautiful bowls, bonsai containers, ikebana vases, and many, many other things as she allows clay to lead her. Now these ceramic tags.
Last fall, as we talked on the phone, I casually asked if she could make plant labels. She said she’d never done it but felt sure she could. And like a house on fire, she experimented, came up with ideas, and started asking more questions than I had answers for. I tried to slow her down a bit, so I wouldn’t have to do my part, write down the names of the herbs, make choices… (Pathetic, I know.) She’d have no truck with that. She wanted to do it. And now! (This comes from our mother, who would’ve made a great general.) Finally I told her I trusted her judgment completely, to keep them simple. Susan and I decided on a shape and the rest I left in her hands.
When I came home from a trip in November, I found them waiting for me. I hadn’t planned on unwrapping the box, but when she asked what I thought of them, I felt I’d better look and see. I was stunned by the two I opened. Wow! I said to myself, and to her, then stored them until just a few weeks ago and had another Wow! as I viewed one after another of these beautiful tags.
We’ve had a cold, wet spring. Weeds grow apace. Finally the head gardener had time to dutifully prepare the beds for the labels and a few days ago I ceremoniously planted them in their proper bed and smiled at how official, how open for business, this culinary garden looked. I even spied Brother Cadfael, who has an apothecary garden connected to this culinary garden, sneaking, yes, sneaking over to the herb beds to snatch up some chervil that hadn’t gone to seed.
You can see a few of the herbs that have come into their own, despite the cool spring. Garden sorrel, a sour herb, tastes delicious in salads, in soups, or a leaf or two grabbed as you pass by looking for a sharp taste in your mouth. Sage flowers beautifully and in the background, rue flowers its lovely yellow blooms. I read that gardeners in Central Park in New York City can’t keep rue plants in their gardens, because someone pilfers them as soon as they go in the earth. I like that. Here, they self-sow with abandon and become host plants for swallowtails later in the summer. Italians use the leaves in salads, in small doses. Some people, including me, get a dermatitis from the leaves on hot summer days, when sweat pours down and the leaves react with your skin and the sun.
Although no labels appear at the entrance to the culinary garden, you can see the rose de rescht that flavors a rose petal wine and the lemon balm behind the roses that also make a delicious wine, as well as tea. And more rue I’d kindly share with the gardens in Central Park.
As the herbs come into their own in each bed, I’ll write more about each and you’ll get a closer glimpse of the plant and the label Susan made.
With much appreciation for the fine work of Susan this was produced by Barbara, written by Mimi and inspired by Susan.