I travel a lot during the winter months to give lectures at flower and garden shows, national conferences, and regional herb events. It’s delightful work, I meet wonderful people, and I’m often hosted by groups who treat me like royalty, but here’s the problem. Almost without fail at these events, someone from the hosting group is asked to speak to me about the dinner arrangements and ask for my food preferences. I always say the same thing: “I really, really like Asian restaurants, especially Thai and Vietnamese, because of the vast assortment of herbal flavors in those foods. I very much enjoy Mexican, Cuban, and Guatemalan dishes, as well. But I’m not much for Italian.”
And the host replies, “Oh. We have this favorite Italian place we were hoping to take you to, but if you’d prefer something else. . .” Good hosts always want to make their guests comfortable, and I try to be a good guest and make my hosts feel comfortable in return. So immediately I am my mother’s son, jumping to make the person feel better, especially because it’s not the Italian herbs that I don’t enjoy—I love them all very much.
“No problem,” I say. “That sounds fine. I haven’t had good Italian food in a long while.” Almost without fail, I am taken to a local pizza joint that also serves over-cooked spaghetti with a canned, sour marsala sauce, or worse yet, I may end up at a national chain restaurant that is “like family,” where everything is prepackaged and simply warmed and served. I attempt to smile but I feel like I’m in that movie, “Groundhog Day,” in which the lead character continues to make the same mistakes over and over until he learns some kind of life lesson.
I like oregano, I really do. And rosemary, thyme, and garlic, too. And fresh tomatoes—I love those. But I have to admit to being a curmudgeon about the American version of Italian food because I get bored with the small palette of flavors that seems to be repeated in every dish. Italian food in the United States means pasta and the same sauce nearly every time. Whether pasta is served with tomato sauce or cream sauce, it always seems to include the same six or so herbs in varying degrees. It’s too predictable, and I prefer variety—especially when it comes to herbs.
As a child, my mother made me write on the calendar that I liked this dish or that, because the next time she made it, I would claim I didn’t like it, and she’d show me on the calendar where and when I “did, too, like it once.” Neither she nor I caught on for years that it was the repeat of the dish, the predictability, not the dish itself that I didn’t enjoy.
Some hosts really do know good Italian food when they taste it, and I wind up at some delightful hole-in-the-wall restaurant where three generations of an Italian family offer their own recipes. That makes it a pleasure to be proven wrong, and it reminds me that I actually do like good Italian food from time to time.
The genus Origanum includes about twenty varieties of oregano and marjoram, some with more pleasing flavors than others. I truly love those flavors, as well as the delicious flavors of the broad spectrum of basils and the tang of good garlic. I grow several kinds of garlic, several basils, and several oreganos and marjorams. I like those flavors used many other ways than as a seasoning for tomato sauce.
One of my favorite appetizers, which uses all fresh herbs, is 1/4 cup chopped basil, 10 leaves of garlic chives or 5 plain garlic leaves snipped in pieces, three 4-inch sprigs of marjoram (leaves stripped off the stems), and 1 sprig each of oregano and thyme cut into pieces with scissors. Chop or snip the herbs (a small food processor works well) into a bowl with 1 tablespoon of light oil. Stir, then add about 4 cups of farmer cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes. Toss until the cheese is completely coated with the herbs, refrigerate several hours or overnight, and then serve on toothpicks with crackers. The flavors of those traditional Italian herbs are delicious.
So you can count me as a minority of one, someone who wouldn’t miss pasta if it dropped off the face of the earth. My garden will continue to include all of those wonderful Italian herbs, and I will use them every day in every unpredictable way possible. But if you ask me out to eat, don’t expect me to vote for a spaghetti restaurant if there are any other choices in sight.
Jim Long welcomes readers’ questions or comments; you may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tour his gardens at www.longcreekherbs.com.