Round Robin: The Herbal Collection

Rob Proctor confronts the habit of over-collecting.
December/January 1997
http://www.motherearthliving.com/Plant-Profile/round-robin-herbal-collection.aspx




Denver, Colorado—I’ve come to the conclusion that the major force that drives this country is the fear of running out of something. Who doesn’t worry periodically about running out of gas, toothpaste, ­coffee, bathroom tissue, clean underwear, milk, pet food, or Pop Tarts? Something close to panic sets in when I realize there’s no chocolate in the house. Perhaps that explains why, for my entire adult life, I’ve lived within walking distance of an all-night convenience store. (Or perhaps it’s because there’s one convenience store for approximately every ten people on the planet and everybody in my city lives within walking distance of one.)

Winter often increases our anxieties about running out of something. I marvel at some of my friends’ kitchens, stocked to ensure survival from blizzard conditions harsher than those ­endured by the Donner party. My cupboards are full of survival foods as well, but the problem is that they all need to be cooked and I don’t cook. If I were snowed in by myself, I wouldn’t know how to make an edible meal out of the hodgepodge of jars of pasta, cinnamon sticks, and dried mushrooms and tomatoes. I’d simply call Dominos and pray that the delivery guy has chains on his tires.

But there’s something comforting about having all that stuff high up on the shelves. If I could cook, the meal I’d fix would be extremely delectable and healthy because of the herbs that I’d add to it.

Have I got herbs! I used to hang them in decorative bundles in the kitchen, but after they turned brown and crumbly, I couldn’t tell them apart. I’d find myself adding oregano instead of mint to a pot of brewing tea. I don’t recommend this, and I don’t know what mint would do for spaghetti sauce. By midwinter, a layer of dust would have settled on the herbs. Cute and quaint as they may have looked, I rarely used them after that. Even if I’d tried to, I’d have been disturbing a spider’s little ecosystem.

Nowadays, I store most dried herbs in decorative glass jars in a cupboard or the hall pantry. I haven’t a clue about the mysterious contents of some of those jars in the cupboards. There are also a lot of grains, beans, flours, and meals that I don’t recognize as well as a jar of sugar with a vanilla bean in it. I’m pretty sure it’s sugar, but I’ve been known to confuse sugar with salt—I’ve never lived down the time I was asked to get a guest chef a cup of sugar for her lemon custard pie.

There’s an entire shelf of herbal vinegars, some of which were bottled during the Nixon administration. The ones in pretty, old-fashioned bottles with a festive bow of raffia or yarn around the neck were gifts from friends. Twigs, stems, and leaves (or perhaps seaweed) are suspended in murky eternity. I’m tempted to clean up the bottles, change the cheery bows, and give them back to the original makers—in a basket with recycled fruitcake, of course.

Making herbal vinegar has replaced canning fruits and vegetables as a national culinary pastime. When I was growing up, nearly every visitor to our house brought home-canned tomatoes, beans, apricots, or pickles. These days, even someone as culinarily impaired as I am can make herbal vinegar. There’s no tiresome boiling, ­peeling, or sterilization, and no risk of botulism in that acidic environment. And vinegars are decorative.

Some of my friends have the kitchens of gourmet chefs. One woman I know has a walk-in refrigerator, marble countertops, three sinks, every ­conceivable slicer, dicer, chopper, grinder, and blender, not to mention an enormous industrial range that could easily produce a state dinner at the White House. You’d think she’d be canning, stewing, and baking up a storm, but she and her husband eat out a lot.

Our kitchen is small, and there’s not enough counter space. The refrigerator is on its last legs, and the dishwasher sounds like a helicopter taking off. Still, some wonderful cooking goes on in here—but not by me, unless you count a mean tuna salad that I’ve been perfecting since college. The ingredients are secret. Well, actually they’re ­variable, tuna being the only required element. Dill is nice, and chopped ­cucumber, a dash of mustard, a little garlic, and maybe some celery—unless we’ve run out of everything. Then I head to the 7-Eleven.