Essays from
Giving Ground

"The Kitchen Cabinet" (at this very political time)

- or -

Kitchen Herbs: Ancient Winter Medicine

by Pam Thompson, herbalist at Giving Ground

We think of herb and food combinations, such as "salmon and dill" or "lamb and mint," with familiarity and possibly with nostalgia for our mothers' "Sunday cooking". But truly, such combinations of kitchen herbs and meat, fish or poultry had their ancient roots in very practical biology.

All the aromatic cooking, or culinary, herbs we use today have always been "herbal medicine." They have been wild first, then tamed, or cultivated, by some peoples, still gathered wild by others, and "the fence" has always moved back and forth with time, cultural traditions, and immigration patterns. What's cultivated in one region or by one tribe, at one time, may be wild again in another time and place. What are "weeds," too, changes over time, and from continent to continent, and from group to group.

The aromatic qualities of kitchen herbs have to do with their essential, volatile oils. All aromatic herbs contain essential oils, which have, in turn, antiseptic qualities, carminative or digestive-aid qualities, and all nourish the central nervous system.

In the beginning, the herbs with which we are familiar today, and which give robust flavor to soups and stews, meats, puddings and pies, were rubbed into flesh especially - meat, fish, fowl - because the antiseptic qualities in their volatile oils helped to preserve those foods. There were no canning jars and no freezers. Thyme, rosemary, coriander, cardamom, cloves, cumin, dill, garlic, onion, and fennel: all of these preserved food, as well as masking putrefying odors if the food wasn't treated quickly enough or with enough of a "dose" of the antibacterial spices. People didn't throw away food in early times.

Think of peppermint and cinnamon mouthwashes today. It is the antiseptic quality of these spices, first, that we count on, and only second, do we count on a "refreshing" sensation in the mouth. Thymol, or the essential oil of thyme, is the first ingredient in Listerine!

The digestive aid, or "carminative" actions of many herbs are a helpful "side effect" of using them to flavor cooking. Anise, fennel, caraway, cardamom, celery, thyme, dill, rosemary, cloves, ginger, cayenne, peppermint all of these help the stomach to dispel gas. (Think of that little basket of peppermint candies next to the cash register of nearly every restaurant.)

Many of the herbs mentioned above help our circulation as well, often by dilating our blood vessels so that warm, oxygenated blood can flow to our extremities and warm us. Think of the popular "tail-gate" fare at a cold, damp, windy autumn football game: chili - with its mix of herbs including hot red pepper! And what are the spices we traditionally turn to in the winter months, for flavoring our winter holiday sweets? The "pumpkin pie spices": ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. All of these are antibacterial, warming, aiding the body's circulatory and digestive systems, nourishing to the central nervous system. David Hoffmann, English herbalist and teacher, says, "All tend to induce a state of inner ease and well-being, thus reducing tension and depression." We can all use a "dose" of that during the dark, cold winter months when holiday stresses and winter colds and flu abound!

What magnificent "traditions" our ancestors worked out for us!

Copyright 2008 by Pam Thompson

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