Dutch Fork: Herbs

The Dutch Fork Kitchen Garden of the nineteenth century contained a wide variety of herbs. It was usually enclosed by a fence of palings to keep the dogs and farm and forest animals out. It sometimes had its ornamentation of lilies or other flowers against the palings; but its purpose was practical. From records of this time, one can compile an impressive list of plants in the plot inside these palings to which the Deutsch wife had access for seasoning, making teas, and curing ailments. Furthermore, the roots, berries, leaves, and fruits of the forest, coupled with the produce of the herb plot, comprised the sum total of early material medicine and all the favorite seasonings for cooking, with the notable exceptions of nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon.

Mint was a staple in every Deutsch kitchen garden. It was used for making a beverage, for a treatment for stomach troubles, and as a flavoring for candy. Favorite forms were spearmint and peppermint, though many varieties of the herb existed. Sage was always, and still is, a popular herb for seasoning meats, especially sausage and liver dumplings. It was also widely used for sage tea to cure sick folks, as a stomachic and stimulant. A large amount of sweet basil would be commonly planted in the plot. My grandmother always planted a full row of the herb. As a seasoning, it was a favorite alternate for the sage of liver dumplings. Coriander was a must with some families in seasoning sausage and liver dumplings. At the age of 83, Willie Meetze of Hilton is still planting seven long rows of the herb. (In 1987 he sold nine pounds to a neighbor who was killing eleven hogs for his children.) One description of a Dutch Fork cooking scene of about 1850 has come down to us: "We women ground black pepper in the little pepper mill, rubbed up sweet basil, coriander, and sage, and cut up onions. We always seasoned [our sausage and pudding meat] a-plenty. ) The Dutch Forker enjoyed food highly seasoned with herbs; and his garden plot made this possible. These plants were valued and carefully passed down to friend and neighbor from generation to generation. One marriage custom, as we have already seen, was for the neighbors to give the newlyweds starts of such plants.

Sweet marjoram, thyme, rosemary, parsley, garlic, and shallots were mentioned somewhat less often, but must have been common enough. Thyme and rosemary served the dual purpose of seasoning and fragrance. It was sprigs of thyme which the good old ladies of St. Johns Church were described as being perfumed with on Easter morning, 1830. One beautiful Dutch Fork maidens nickname, in fact, became "Katrina of the Rosemary Breath." It was celebrated for fragrance; but rosemary roots when boiled into a tea were a cure for dysentery. Eleazer recalls that the "small flowers of the lavendar plant added their fragrance to stored clothes and bedding.

Of the herbs strictly grown for medicinal purposes, there was tansy, horehound, rue, comfrey root, boneset, chamomile, catnip, and saffron. Tansy, sometimes called "double tansy" would be steeped "liberally" in a stout jug of whiskey and drunk as a stomachic "for giving edge to the appetite for breakfast" and other meals, a local use not recorded in the usual herbals. Chamomile and saffron both made medicinal teas. Boneset (Eupatorium) tea was used to reduce fever and was a widely practiced cure. Comfrey root, made into a poultice with the wild "Life Everlasting" {Gnaphalium, also known locally as "Rabbit tobacco") and Elecampane (Inula helenium), would alleviate severe pain. "Life Everlasting" when chewed or drunk as tea, would "build the blood." It was also smoked in a pipe for enjoyment, particularly on the sly by Dutch Fork boys, including my father and uncles. "The bruised dark green leaves of the rue plant were bound to wrists and temples of children when convulsions struck." Another account reads: "Preventing spasm in children by taking tops of the rue plant, wrap them up and tie them around the waist or legs." Catnip tea was good for growing babies." Eleazer reports that "no family with little ones was ever without catnip" as a cure for colic. Mrs. Monts prescribed that to soothe a fretful child, make a brew of beebalm and catnip. Horehound tea was a famous cure for colds.

Taken altogether, then, the generally cultivated herbs of the Fork provide an impressive list: mint, sage, basil, coriander, marjoram, thyme, bee-balm, parsley, rosemary, garlic, shallots, tansy, horehound, rue, comfrey, boneset, chamomile, saffron, and catnip. The favorite spices cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg were the only seasonings purchased frequently, and then from the stores or the Yankee peddlers who sometimes tried to cheat the settlers with nutmegs made from wood. The number of herbs in the garden plot, however, could not compare with the natural productions of wild nature. (Kibler 1988, 129-130)

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