Long before humans began to cultivate their own crops, they hunted and foraged for food. Eventually they found that they could produce larger quantities of grains and vegetables through farming, but the plants that made their meals more interesting still grew wild in the rocky places that were unsuitable to cereal agriculture. The plants that we call “herbs” continued to be hunted in the wild — indeed, in many parts of the world they still are.
Early farmers learned that, for their fields to remain fertile, they needed periodic rests – or fallow periods. The ancient Hebrews even made this part of their laws. Leviticus 25:2 – 5 and 20 – 22 specify that every seventh year the fields could not be planted. During that year, people tended to revert to a kind of hunter-gatherer existence, where wild plants were especially esteemed. The Talmud even helped by distinguishing between wild and domesticated versions of the same plants, giving distinctive names to the wild versions (which included arugala, celery, chicory, cilantro, mustard, purslane, and rue).
Herb gardens are intended to appeal to all of our senses, to encourage us to linger in their intimate, civilized wildness
Gradually, many of these savory weeds began to be planted in small household gardens, usually within easy reach of the person who did the cooking. Some years ago, an archaeologist noticed some rosemary growing in an oddly regular fashion. Digging 10 – 12 feet below the surface, he discovered the ruins of a small house. Some ancient Roman had planted the rosemary conveniently close to the kitchen door. Long after the occupants had passed on to their culinary rewards, and their house crumbled, the rosemary lived on. Century after century, the soil built up over the spot, rising slowly enough for the rosemary to keep its head above the horizon.
Some small kitchen gardens eventually evolved into formal herb gardens. It is no accident that herbs, those glorified weeds, are grown in the only food gardens that are designed for their aesthetic properties. While all other crops are grown for efficiency of production — these lowly weeds have a place of honor, close to our homes and hearts. Herb gardens are intended to appeal to all of our senses, to encourage us to linger in their intimate, civilized wildness. Sometimes these “weeds” can be found thriving in pots on our kitchen windowsills.
Herbs have been with us since before we were modern humans. They have evolved with us — like cats and dogs — and, just as our pets have become family members, we like to pamper them and keep them close because these plants retain just enough of their original wildness to endlessly fascinate us.
This is excerpted from Herbs: A Global History, Gary’s new volume in Reaktion’s Edible Series of single-topic books on food and drink. It’s scheduled for publication in mid-April, and can be ordered in hard cover www.amazon.com/ or for kindle.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: A History of Preserved Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us