Down to Earth: Read Men Smell Herbs

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Photography by Anybody Goes

A big, tough oil rig ­worker is transformed into a giggling kid when he sniffs lemon verbena and gets a taste of Vietnamese cilantro.

Recently a young couple visited my garden. She was learning about herbs to start a business, and he worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Often husbands accompany their wives on trips to our farm, showing support or, at the very least, tolerance for their wives’ interests. I’ve come to regard those husbands as well meaning, even though many make it clear that they would rather be watching football than following their mate around an herb shop.

The couple visited with me in the shop, looking over the books and the dream pillows. She asked questions about organizations, workshops, and other things that a new shop owner considers. The husband was quiet but showed enthusiasm for his wife’s questions. I confess that I assumed that because he worked on an oil rig, this big, tough guy would guffaw at the subtle flavors of any herbs with less substance than a sizzling hot pepper.

While his wife shopped inside, the man asked me if I’d give him a brief tour of the herb garden. We walked down the steps and paused under the grape arbor by a pot of allspice bush (Pimenta dioica). I pulled off a slender, shiny leaf, broke it in half to release the aroma, and handed it to the guy, thinking I’d tell him how useful allspice leaf is in aftershave lotions. I expected a grunt or a nod or maybe even an “uh-huh”; I definitely wasn’t prepared for what I got. His eyes lit up, a big grin came across his face, and he yelled over his shoulder to his wife, “Honey, you’ve got to come out here. This is incredible!”

If he’s excited by that plant, I thought, wait until he experiences some of the ­others.

We moved on to the culinary bed, where I picked a couple of lemon verbena leaves and told the guy I use them in cheesecake. I crushed the leaves slightly and handed them to him. He giggled. Not laughed, not chuckled, not guffawed, but giggled like a kid. “Honey! Honey! Get out here. You’re not going to believe the smells of these herbs. Please, come out here now!” As he called to his wife inside, he literally jumped up and down.

I’m always making the assumption that male visitors to my garden probably can’t tell the difference between oregano and wood shavings, and I love it when I’m proven wrong.

He smelled, then tasted, every herb I handed him: Sicilian oregano, Vietnamese cilantro, rosemary, caraway thyme, fragrant sweet goldenrod, and on down the path. In fact, he was so eager that I had to caution him before handing him something bitter or unpleasant such as costmary or tansy. His wife joined him, just as excited to watch his reactions as to have a tour. At one point, the husband apologized, saying that all he smelled at work was sea air and oily machinery and that herbs were really refreshing.

“No apology is needed,” I assured my visitor. “I wish that everyone enjoyed themselves as much when they walk through the ­garden.”

I find that most men have every bit as keen a sense of taste as women when it comes to combining herb flavors, but they are less likely to show the emotion that the fragrance evokes. Unfortunately, I’m always making the assumption that male visitors to my garden probably can’t tell the difference between oregano and wood shavings, and I love it when I’m proven wrong.

And so, once again, I was reminded not to make quick judgments about people. Seeing this big guy’s eyes light up at his first taste of fennel and watching his surprise at the taste of a rose petal and a mint leaf renewed my own sense of wonder at all that nature packs into those tiny leaves and petals. It’s that sense of adventure that renews my own spirit.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas. His most recent book, Body Care for Men, which ­covers herbal preparations especially formulated for males, will be released by Storey Publishing in ­October.

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