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The kitchen secrets of the little green gods
Geoffrey Grigson
August 21, 1961
To people of the past—200 years ago or 2,000 years ago—herbs were little green gods. According to the old Greeks, if you used herbs correctly, they would do wonders for you, but if you used any one of them on the wrong occasion or otherwise irked it, the herb would loose demons. Parsley is commonly used today to adorn blue-plate specials, but 19 centuries ago the Roman naturalist Pliny, a living fountainhead of facts—and fancies—insisted that the spirit of parsley would be offended if it were served anywhere but at funeral feasts. Pliny believed that snakes and vipers eat fennel (they do not), and he advised men to do likewise to improve their eyesight. The Greeks, and the Romans after them, planted green bay to ward off lightning, and long after the Roman Empire had gone to pieces, medieval physicians prescribed thyme to cheer up the sick.
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August 21, 1961

The Kitchen Secrets Of The Little Green Gods

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To people of the past—200 years ago or 2,000 years ago—herbs were little green gods. According to the old Greeks, if you used herbs correctly, they would do wonders for you, but if you used any one of them on the wrong occasion or otherwise irked it, the herb would loose demons. Parsley is commonly used today to adorn blue-plate specials, but 19 centuries ago the Roman naturalist Pliny, a living fountainhead of facts—and fancies—insisted that the spirit of parsley would be offended if it were served anywhere but at funeral feasts. Pliny believed that snakes and vipers eat fennel (they do not), and he advised men to do likewise to improve their eyesight. The Greeks, and the Romans after them, planted green bay to ward off lightning, and long after the Roman Empire had gone to pieces, medieval physicians prescribed thyme to cheer up the sick.

Today we are ruled by the heavy hand of scientific fact. We do not sprinkle funerals with parsley or use shrubbery against lightning. In this day of powerful synthetic potions we rarely even use herbal medicines to ward off chills or fevers. Herbs have been relegated to the kitchen, but in this limited realm their magic prevails. If used correctly, a single herb still can perform a variety of wonders; it can make bad English cooking palatable and make very good Italian food taste even better.

All herbs, sweet or sour, bland or piquant, are best when picked fresh from the garden. Any small patch of soil can be turned into an herb garden if there is a fair share of light and air—too much sun is not necessarily an advantage. The city dweller can keep a few pots on the windowsill: parsley, chives, basil, tarragon and chervil flourish in pots. Don't be afraid to keep cutting the leaves: chives, in particular, grow again very quickly.

From the long list of little green gods that has come down to us from the ancients, I submit here a select 14 that are worth growing, if possible, and worth using, in any case, to add character to a variety of dishes.

PARSLEY. This common herb is the universal improver, used fresh in sauces, salads, with vegetables, and in parsley butter. It is very rich in vitamin C. With a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf it forms the bouquet garni the French use in soups, stews and marinades.

GARLIC. As good from the shop as the garden, since only the hard cloves are used. A purist may well say that, by definition, garlic is not an herb, since it is the clove, rather than the stem or leaf, that is used for flavor. Regardless, for Greeks, Romans and our ancestors garlic was a drugstore in itself, a source of strength and courage, even an aphrodisiac. It has too many uses to list, of course. Those who like it in salads should press it right into the dressing rather than rub the bowl with it.

THYME. No English rabbit pie is complete without the strong yet delicate pungency of thyme leaves. This so-called "cheerful" herb has a wide range of uses—on grilled chops and roasts, in heavy soups like minestrone, in stuffings for fowl and in beef stews with red wine.

MINT. This common plant has been used as a refresher and a digestive for more than 2,000 years. In addition to its association with lamb, it gives a tang to many vegetables and, finely chopped, it goes well with fish, soups, stews and braised duck. Cold roast duck resting on freshly picked mint is an excellent summer dish.

SAGE. Another digestive, it is good with chicken, duck or goose, and also in lentil soup. Cheeses with layer on layer of sage leaves are still made in England—another sage cheese is made in Vermont. The Italians use sage for the famous veal dish of Rome, saltimbocca, and also in spaghetti sauces.

SWEET BASIL. The name comes from the Greek word for king. This herb, originating in India (where another species of basil is sacred to Vishnu), is not much to look at but exerts a most kingly pungency. It is essential to clear soups and pesto, a special sauce for pasta in Ligurian cooking. The Italians apply basil almost with abandon. They have a saying: "Where salt is good, so is basil."

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