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Most herbs, at one time or another, have had claims made about their medical properties. Many books address these issues, but it is not within the scope of this book to do so. While I do not intend to list the real or imagined medical properties of each herb, however, it is worthwhile to acknowledge the subject in a general way.
In the interest of pharmacological correctness, let us examine the nature of traditional herbal remedies. There are two primary categories of herbal remedies: those that work and those that don't. Like most grand simplifications, this one overlooks the fact that specific examples may fallsomewhere between these two extremes; but a simplistic assertion is sometimes useful as an explanatory tool, as long as we don't forget that it is only a tool.
Herbal remedies in the former category may have been discovered by careful research, trial and error, experience, or just plain dumb luck. The fact that they work is of great interest to scientists and physicians and certainly to people who may benefit by treatment with the herbs. Such plants contain compounds that have been used either directly as medicines or as sources of materials in the formulation of modern pharmaceuticals.
Among the ones that work, we may include those plants that are especially high in valuable nutrients. Some herbs, such as purslane and sorrel, do have substantial quantities of ingredients that are essential to our well-being. These two, because they are eaten in large enough quantities to provide a significant quantity of these nutrients, are exceptional. Most herbs, even though they are rich in vitamins and minerals, are used primarily as seasoning. One simply doesn't consume enough of the plant to make much difference in health.
The second category ("medicinal" plants that don't work as medicine) offers a number of intriguing areas for our scrutiny. If there is no scientific proof that an herb has curative properties, yet there is anecdotal evidence for its efficacy, we must look to other causes. Once again, there are two possibilities: the scientific basis has not yet been found (but if found, moves the herb into our original first category) or the herb has some placebo effect.
Mysticism and Culture
Placebos may work for many reasons, but they all depend on the belief of the individual taking "the cure." Beliefs are, by definition, not susceptible to proof by logical means. Some philosophers would argue that any subject that cannot be resolved by logical means is not worth discussion. This, however, is not a philosophical discussion. It is cultural. Herbs have been part of human culture for a long time. They have acquired a lot of cultural baggage along the way. It is this baggage that gives credence to the faith healers' claims.
The metaphors that are at the heart of these beliefs are also close to the associations we make when we eat. To say that taste resides in the tongue, with assistance from the nose, is to grossly oversimplify. We taste with our brains. Our palate resides there, making use of tongue and nose as tools-effective, but not exclusive, tools.
Everything we know-or think we know-affects our perceptions of food. When we taste the rosemary, sage, and thyme in the stuffing of a Thanksgiving turkey, we do not taste the sum of the ingredients alone. We taste all the collateral cultural associations as well. An ancient remembrance, pleasurable or not, can be relived through a single taste. Does anyone honestly believe that Proust's epiphany with his madeleine was accomplished by his tongue?
What does this mean for us, as herbalists in the kitchen? Whether we do or do not believe in herbal cures, the stories, metaphors, and allusions from which the placebos derive their power affect us as cooks and diners.
There may be some symbolism based on physical resemblances between the herb and the human body, or parts thereof. Plants that look like sexual organs are alleged to have aphrodisiacal properties. Hepatica is named for its leaves' supposed resemblance to the shape of the liver. The roots of mandrake and ginseng are thought to look like miniature human beings. Many cultures make medical use of these plants solely because of those resemblances. This form of analogous thought is known as "the doctrine of signatures."
A similar process, involving the physical appearance of herbs, is somewhat more removed. Sometimes visual features provide an herb with its name. If an herb is named after an animal, and the animal symbolizes certain strengths, the herb may be considered to share those traits. This could be called "the syllogistic method."
Closely related is what may be called "the assumptive method." The consumer of a certain plant assumes, or benefits from, the characteristics of the plant. Rosemary, having a long-lasting scent, is believed to help its users to recover their memories.
Sometimes herbs suggest their use as remedies by growing in proximity with other plants. Plants that grow near each other may be thought to either reinforce or counteract the properties of the other. Jewelweed grows near, but not right next to, poison ivy, so some people believe it to be a natural antidote for the itch of poison ivy. This belief process could be called "the proximate method." Whether or not jewelweed actually has the desired effect is outside of the scope of this book.
These quantum jumps of the imagination are exactly the kinds of creative association of ideas that are the foundation of poetry and other refined arts, including the culinary arts, and they may have led our ancestors to try herbal remedies that were, coincidentally, efficacious. Our logical selves may put them aside as insignificant, but we hold them carefully in reserve, knowing that we ultimately resort to them to create the metaphors we need to interpret our experiences.
Food Danger Issues
Beyond this passing notice of herbs as medicine, the subject is not covered in the herbal entries. The only exception to this rule is when the pharmacological properties of an herb may make its use dangerous. Some plants have chemical properties that cannot safely be ignored. It is possible to use some herbs in a dangerous or illegal manner. The fact that I do or do not mention such use should by no means imply that I recommend or condone such use.
I highly encourage informed use of any herb you intend to consume. It is not possible to take too many precautions. There are a number of types of concern.
I have listed several herbs for which one or more sources advise against excessive use. How much is too much? Alcohol, for example, has been used in almost every known culture. Yet everyone knows of problems related to excessive use. Almost everyone knows how difficult it is determine the threshold of danger for any particular individual. Why should the process be any easier with relatively obscure herbs?
Many plants, routinely used as foods, can be dangerous if used incorrectly. A potato, if allowed to become green or sprout eyes, can develop toxins. Our familiarity with potatoes preserves us from any inconvenience. Such familiarity will be just as beneficial to serious users of herbs.
It may sound obvious, but proper identification of herbs is essential. For example, many shrubs are called "laurel" in the United States. Almost every one of them is toxic, except for bay leaves. The leaves look the same. Only information about the source, or the plant itself, can properly identify a bay leaf.
I have tried to include warnings when dangerous confusions seem likely. I have also included some herbs, suitably noted, that are known to be toxic. I have done so because a reader of old herbal books or cookbooks may be misled by the multiple use of common names, or worse, by an ancient author's understandable lack of modern scientific information. In some cases, dangerous herbs have no known culinary purpose, but as their names may be found in old herbals or recipe books, they are included here-with appropriate warnings in the "Comments" section of the entries.
Once a reader ventures beyond the dozen or so common herbs, the literature tends to become somewhat more technical than most cooks would desire. I have tried to distill the relevant portions of this vast material to facts that might actually be of use in the kitchen. What might appear at first to be technical mumbo jumbo (e.g., the chemical names of the main flavorings contained in the herbs) could be useful to the cook. Suppose, for example, a recipe calls for za'atar, but your spice rack has none. Knowing that carvacrol and thymol are the most important flavoring components of za'atar can help in determining a last-minute substitution (in this case, thyme). Likewise, if you've also run out of thyme, wild bergamot, with its high carvacrol and thymol content, will do in a pinch. Such emergency substitutions bring along additional flavors and aromas as well. An alert cook will benefit from serendipitous juxtapositions of flavors, and new dishes will result.
Reading through the flavorings literature can offer some insights into areas beyond the kitchen. The history and geography of the herb and spice trade have been the subjects of several books already, but these subjects are more complex and fascinating than a reader might suspect. They cry out for a bigger, and fuller, understanding. They are far beyond the scope of this volume, but I would love to see a book on such topics. On a smaller scale, a fascinating book could be written on the history of adulteration of herbs and spices, alone. I allude occasionally, usually in the "Comments" section of the entries, to some of these illicit activities. To explore fully the mendacity of spice merchants through the centuries would provide a mesmerizing, if slightly depressing, look at humans' capacity for avarice.
Some Notes on Format and Conventions Used in the Text
Wherever possible, I have used Hortus Third, the third and most recent edition of L. H. Bailey and E. Z. Bailey's reference work, prepared by staff members at Cornell University's Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium, as the final arbiter in questions of scientific classification of herbs. There is an important limitation to the usefulness of Hortus Third: it addresses only plants known to be grown in North America at the time of its publication ( 976). The list of plants cultivated in North America is increasing all the time. Some of the plants we use as herbs are not grown here, but may be soon. The last three decades have witnessed an unparalleled expansion in culinary and horticultural awareness. Perhaps the next edition of Hortus will address some of these new tastes. I don't envy its editors their task. The relentless increase in the assemblage of cultivated plants must produce some of the sensations felt by the sorcerer's apprentice.
Some plant names you may encounter are outside the scope of this book. Some herbs have no culinary use. I may include them, as limited entries, solely in the hope of eliminating some confusion due to multiple uses of matching or similar names.
A few words about words: if you spend much time reading through old books on herbs, you soon discover that spelling was not a high priority among early herbalists or, indeed, food writers. This is not entirely their fault; after all, there was no successful dictionary of the English language until Samuel Johnson saw the need for one in the eighteenth century. Because a reader might encounter any sort of unlikely spelling, I originally intended to include various unusual combinations of letters I encountered. In some cases, writers have dealt with foreign expressions phonetically. In others, it is hard to imagine what they were thinking. If the present book harbors any hope of untangling this messy subject, it must acknowledge the existence of some semantic snarls and bewildering lapses of lexical judgment. Viewed more positively, the misspelled words evoke the rustic charm of simpler times.
While not wishing to perpetuate these errors, I seemed to have little choice but to include them; however, for reasons of space, I have deleted many of the alternate names of plants that result from differing attempts at phonetic spelling.
Also, I did not wish to repeat, ad nauseam, that the Latin names used by apothecaries, pharmacists, and-to some extent even today-the flavorings industry do not correspond to scientific Latin binomials. They tended to use the common Latin name of the plant in combination with descriptors such as cortex (bark), radix (root), flores (flowers), herbae or foliae (leaves), and semen or fructae (seeds) to reflect only the part of the plant used.
Scientific naming of species grew out of that practice, but it imposes a rigorous set of rules, designed to eliminate the confusion of species by creating a unique hierarchy of groupings that define and locate the named species. In an ideal world, the system would work perfectly.
The real world, however, is a messy place, full of ambiguity. It is open to many varied, conflicting, and seemingly logical interpretations-simultaneously. As a result, even the highly rational science of taxonomy cannot resolve some confusions. Zoologists define species as a group of animals that, when mated, can produce viable, fertile offspring. If pressed, zoologists may grudgingly admit the existence of subspecies. Botanists, on the other hand, also allow "cultivars" and "varieties"; they even encourage hybrids of the most unlikely combinations of plants.
In zoological taxonomy, a genus (such as Homo) is capitalized, but the species (such as sapiens) is generally not capitalized. Botanists do allow for capitalization of species names, especially when the species name is derived from a proper noun, as in Murraya Koenigii. The scientific names are always listed in italic. There are, of course, exceptions. Subspecies and varieties simply add a third name in italic, preceded by the abbreviation "subs." or "var." in roman type. Cultivar names are also added after the species name; they are indicated either by preceding the cultivar's name with the abbreviation "cv," in roman type, or by enclosing the cultivar's name in single quotation marks, as in the present book. Cultivar names are never listed in italic. Readers who long to master this rather demanding-and sometimes arcane-system are encouraged to consult the International Code of Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants and International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. I should add that in the present book, names of botanical families or subfamilies are rendered without italic.
Not all the cookbooks and other sources I consulted in preparing this book have been taxonomically strict enough to satisfy the need for unequivocal information. In fact, some plants have eluded all efforts toward positive identification. Since it seems likely that readers will have encountered some of these naming nightmares, it seemed best to include all variations, even when they were known to be incorrect. This is not intended to condone sloppy scholarship, but to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
Since many users of this book are likely to be serious readers of obscure cookbooks, I have included the naming conventions of spices likely to be encountered. Spices, with some exceptions, are not herbs. The herb or spice name, even in the recipe context, may not be enough to categorize an unfamiliar term found in an old recipe.
This book is not intended to be a gardening book, although I suspect that some gardeners will find something of use in it. The origins of plants are included, out of general interest. Generally, a range is given for each herb, although most can be grown, with moderate care, in temperate areas everywhere.
Excerpted from THE Herbalist IN THE Kitchen by GARY ALLEN Copyright © 2007 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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