Sweet Herbs for Hearth and for Health:
The Civil War Kitchen Garden

"A bundle of sweet herbs" is a frequent ingredient found in recipes from the 19th century, and is the occasion for many inquiries. What exactly is a "sweet herb" anyway, how do I get them, and is this going to cause the local drug authorities to take an unhealthy interest in me if I go to the store and ask around?

You can attract the interest the entire vice squad if you go asking for "Old Man," for instance, if you are not aware that it is a very obscure term for a variety of aromatic herb used in the making of absinthe (which was perfectly legal in 19th century America) (and has only recently become legal again.)

One way to avoid such unpleasantness is to grow one's own herbs. It will be found that the difference in flavor between a fresh plant and a dried commercial version, stored for who knows how long, is substantial. Plus it's cheap, so why not?

The term "herbs and spices" are so often seen together that we tend to blur the difference between them. Technically, at least historically, spices were defined as "fragrant, aromatic plant products like cinnamon, cloves, ginger and pepper... found in plants grown in tropical and subtropical regions of the world." The word herbs on the other hand meant more green, leafy products like mint, rosemary and thyme grown in more temperate areas.

So you can put the division between parts of the plant (seeds, roots, fruits and buds vs. leaves), but in practical terms the following is a good rule: if you have to import it from somewhere else, it's a spice. If you can grow it in your yard, patio or windowsill, it's an herb. Even exotics like saffron can be grown with no more effort than is required for common crocuses so long as one takes care to get the proper bulbs (okay, "culms" if you want to be all technical about it) to start off with.

Historically speaking, though, it is interesting that some of the most common herbs today--basil, for instance, or tarragon--are are rarely mentioned in the cooking books of the 19th century. Conversely, they make great use of things like "summer" and "winter" savory for which you will seek in vain in the spice racks of modern supermarkets. Some of these difference are just changes of name, but others speak of more significant matters.

Let's look at a fairly typical recipe of the Civil War period, from Mrs. Marion Harland's Common Sense in the Household, published just after the war in 1871 in New York:


Cut up two pounds of beef--not too lean--into pieces an inch long; put them into a saucepan with just enough water to cover them, and stew gently for two hours. Set away until next morning, when season with pepper, salt, sweet marjoram or summer savory, chopped onion and parsley. Stew half an hour longer, and add a teaspoonful of sauce or catsup, and a tablespoonful of browned flour wet up with cold water; finally, if you wish to have it very good, half a glass of wine. Boil up once and pour into a covered deep dish. This is an economical dish, for it can be made of the commoner parts of the beef, and exceedingly nice for winter breakfasts.

For starters, of course, we will note that beef stew is seldom contemplated as a breakfast dish these days, nor do we expect to see it in the aisles devoted to flakes, frostings, marshmallow bits and granolas any time soon. Few are the families with a half hour to devote to preparing such a dish, or the further time needed to consume it, or the two hours of stewing required the evening before. Most of us would consider this an intolerable imposition even for an evening meal when temptation lurks in the phone which has both pizza delivery and Chinese takeout on speed dial.

But houses in the 1860s did not yet as a rule have central heating. Cars did not lurk outside the door with preheatable seats, to take us to a climate-controlled work environment. A substantial meal in the morning was a requirement, not a luxury or even an indulgence. But we drift from our subject.

The herbs involved are three, but with five names between them: sweet, marjoram, summer, savory and parsley. Parsley is as lacking in controversy as it is in strong flavor, so we will set it aside. The question we face is, is there a marjoram which is not sweet, and a savory which is not summery? Yes, it seems, and no.

Sweet marjoram, wild marjoram, and just plain marjoram would appear to be botanically identical, with sweet being something intentionally cultivated and wild being, well, wild as in gathered from the woods or roadside. In an earlier time when rural living was more common, and herbs frequently used as much for medicinal purposes as culinary ones, this distinction had some meaning. Hunters know that a wild duck or turkey tastes quite differently from a domesticated one.

The savory situation is more complicated. There are, it seems, two related but botanically different plants (many of these herbs are "related" to a greater or lesser degree; marjoram for instance is at least a distant cousin of oregano). The summer savory is an annual which must be replanted every spring. Winter savory is a "semi-perennial" which can survive in climates similar to or warmer than those of its native Portugal.

Although the individual stalks, as well as the small leaves which constitute the herb itself, look somewhat alike, the overall shape of the two plants are different. The summer variety grows tall and straight while the winter one is squat and fat like a bush.

Some of our rarely seen herbs, unused by themselves, turn up like murder victims, floating in containers of vinegar. From Mrs. Haskell:

TARRAGON VINEGAR--Fill a large wide-mouthed bottle with fresh tarragon leaves, picked from the stalk before the plant flowers; steep them in strong vinegar for fourteen days, or longer if convenient; strain clear; fill half-pint bottles with the vinegar, and cork tightly; this us used to flavor mustards and salads.

BASIL VINEGAR--Infuse basil leaves in best wine vinegar; when it has steeped two weeks, drain it off, press the basil, and add fresh leaves; continue to do this until the vinegar has the desired flavor, when cork and wire down.

VINEGAR OF NASTURTIUMS--Pick young nasturtium seeds, and put them in vinegar; when all the strength is extracted, throw out the seeds, and add more until the vinegar is very strongly flavored.

You get the drift. Similar techniques are used for vinegars of mustard, chili, peach pits, garlic and even celery, which one would think hardly had enough flavor for itself much less to have an influence on a vinegar which in the 19th century was at least twice as strong as it is in modern times. (The standard was 10 percent as opposed to 5 percent today, and even weaker for some generic brands.)

Not all herb vinegars were intended to wind up in the soup:

WORMWOOD VINEGAR--Bruise green wormwood; to one pound add one quart of strong vinegar, steep the wormwood and vinegar together, by setting the bottle in cold water, and heating to boiling heat; let the wormwood and vinegar remain together for two weeks, then strain, press out all the juice, and bottle. This is excellent for all sprains, and ought to be ready to use at any time.

HOP VINEGAR--Steep one quarter of a pound of ripe, but not dry hops in one quart of strong vinegar; let it steep two weeks and then press out the liquor; keep it for colds, quinsy and throat troubles.

Both hops and wormwood can be easily grown in most parts of the US. If you wind up with more hops than you need for vinegar you can use the leftovers for homemade yeast or beer. Advice on growing other legal herbal products can be found in an amazing variety of places. Tarragon, interestingly enough, although usually classed as a "sweet herb" is in fact a relative of the notoriously bitter wormwood.

Mrs. Haskell has a lovely section in her Housekeeper's Encyclopedia concerning gardening. Most of it concerns such overall subjects as establishing proper drainage, or such distasteful but necessary matters as fertilizing--or as a more straightforward era called it, "manuring"--but she has some useful tips on the herb patch:

...[on the size of the patch for various herbs, to satisfy "a family," size unspecified]

Nasturtiums spread very much, a bed three by six, with six plants, would be sufficient...Parsley, a bed three by six, or can be used as borders for other beds; a bed three by six for sage, the same for summer-savory, half as much room for thyme and sweet marjoram; a bed three by six containing wormwood, tansy, Old Man, etc..

The humble parsley gets mentioned twice:

Double-curled Parsley can be sown in the fall, or early in the spring; thin the plants as soon as well up, to an inch apart; and again when large enough to use; it should stand one foot apart when sufficiently thinned. It bears it seed the second year, and then dies. Old seed vegetates sooner than fresh.

parsley: The curled is the most beautiful, and could be kept in a growing state all winter with slight protection. It is used as seasoning to different soups and meats, and also to ornament different dishes at table. It can be dried as other herbs, and used pulverized in soups, broths, etc. Take up some roots, ad pack them in a barrel filled with soil, with large holes bored at regular distances. Put the roots through the holes, leaving the crowns nearly outside; set the barrel in a warm light cellar, and moisten the soil once or twice every week. It can also be kept growing, by making a cold-frame over it, thus protecting it from the frost; but unless it has some light, it will blanch, and lose much of its beauty.

Whereas two better-known items get but one mention each, and even then lumped in together with near rifraff:

Thyme and sage should be planted where they can remain three years; thin the plants to one foot apart. Summer-savory and sweet marjoram are annuals, and can be sown more thickly; tansy, wormwood, and Old Man are perennials, they must seldom be transplanted; sage is tender and needs a little protection. The time for cutting herbs is when in flower; the do not need rich soil; the flavor is stronger in poor soil.

Mrs. Haskell then throws us for a loop. In a chart of a suggested layout for the garden, she notes that one patch should be devoted to the growing of "okra, marteneas, and herbs."

Okra, check. Herbs, well, that's what we're here for. Marteneas? Huh? Whuzzat?

According to a popular search engine we will call "gargle" to avoid copyright issues, there is no such thing as "marteneas." In any language. Anywhere on this planet.

Finally tracked down to its lair, appears that we, or Mrs. Haskell, have been victims of a spelling shift. The plant is now known as "martynia" and while obscure, is by no means unknown. And indeed, it is similar in structure and use to okra, so planting them next to each other makes sense. While Mrs. Haskell no doubt intended it to be grown for its edible pods, it seems that there may nowadays be some use for the plant in medicine, as an anti-inflammatory agent and painkiller.

Once gathered, the herbs must then be put away for future use. Again we have advice, in this case directed at one but applicable to most if not all:

Few people know how to keep the flavor of sweet-marjoram; the best of all herbs for broth and stuffing. It should be gathered in bud or blossom, and dried in a tin-kitchen at a moderate distance from the fire; when dry, it should be immediately rubbed, sifted, and corked up in a bottle carefully.

Mrs. Haskell was far from the only author of the period to write of herbs. Lydia Maria Child, writing under the proper Victorian style of simply "Mrs. Child" dealt with the subject as well. Her bestselling American Frugal Housewife, for instance, first published in 1828, was in its 12th edition by 1833. We quote her at some length to illustrate how herbs were broadly defined both in function and identity (horseradish an herb? Well...maybe...yeah....):

All herbs should be carefully kept from the air. Herb tea, to do any good, should be made very strong.

Herbs should be gathered while in blossom. If left till they have gone to seed, the strength goes into the seed. Those who have a little patch of ground, will do well to raise the most important herbs; and those who have not, will do well to get them in quantities from some friend in the country; for apothecaries make very great profit upon them.

(Some things never change, eh?)

Sage is very useful both as a medicine, for the headache--when made into tea--and for all kinds of stuffing when dried and rubbed into powder. It should be kept tight from the air.

Summer-savory is excellent to season soup, broth and sausages. As a medicine, it relieves the cholic [sic]. Pennyroyal and tansy are good for the same medicinal purpose.

Green wormwood bruised is excellent for a fresh wound of any kind. In winter, when wormwood is dry, it is necessary to soften it in warm vinegar, or spirit, before it is bruised, and applied to the wound.

Hyssop tea is good for sudden colds, and disorders on the lungs. It is necessary to be very careful about exposure after taking it; it is peculiarly opening to the pores.

Tea made of colt's-foot and flax-seed, sweetened with honey, is a cure for inveterate coughs. Consumptions have been prevented by it. It should be drank when going to bed; though it does good to drink it at any time. Hoarhound is useful in consumptive complaints.

Note, we have another spelling mutation here--this item is more commonly, if not universally, spelled "horehound" today. And when it became possible to control tuberculosis (consumption) by other methods, the Hore/Hoarhound Manufacturers of America just switched to making candy flavorings. Ahem, back to our history:

Motherwort tea is very quieting to the nerves. Students, and people troubled with wakefulness, find it useful.

Thoroughwort is excellent for dyspepsy, and every disorder occasioned by indigestion. If the stomach be foul, it operates like a gentle emetic.

Sweet-balm tea is cooling when one is in a feverish state.

Catnip, particularly the blossoms, made into tea, is good to prevent a threatened fever. It produces a fine perspiration. It should be taken in bed, and the patient kept warm.

Housekeepers should always dry leaves of the burdock and horseradish. Burdocks warmed in vinegar, with the hard, stalky parts cut out, are very soothing, applied to the feet; they produce a sweet and gentle perspiration. Horseradish is more powerful. It is excellent in cases of the ague, placed on the part affected. Warmed in vinegar, and clapped.

(A note: burdock is considered a weed by most people, particularly farmers. Give thought to how much you value your popularity with your neighbors before deciding to grow it on purpose. Changing your mind later is of dubious value because the stuff is near impossible to eradicate once established.)

Succory is a very valuable herb. The tea, sweetened with molasses, is good for the piles. It is a gentle and healthy physic, a preventative of dyspepsy, humors, inflammation, and all the evils resulting from a restricted state of the system.

The spelling-shift monster has bitten us again. "Succory" is better known nowadays as "chicory," the beloved coffee additive of New Orleans and surrounding areas.

Elder-blow tea has a similar effect. It is cool and soothing, and peculiarly efficacious either for babes or grown people, when the digestive powers are out of order.

"Blow" refers strictly to the spring blossoms of the elder tree. As the link indicates, several other parts of the plant are used for medicinal purposes as well, but "blow" is an archaic term for flowers.

Lungwort, maiden-hair, hyssop, elecampane and hoarhound steeped together, is an almost certain cure for a cough. A wine-glass full to be taken when going to bed.

To further discourage anyone contemplating trying these recipes for medicinal purposes, note that we have linked above to the disagreeable "black horehound," the description of which should be enough to drive anyone into the more welcoming arms of modern medicine. The other ingredients listed for this potion, although almost certainly useless, at least seem fairly benign. This "maidenhair" is simply the fern of the same name.

We conclude with a name that sounds familiar, but in the sense meant by our historic herbalists, really isn't:

English-mallows steeped in milk is good for the dysentery.

As our link indicates there are a great many plants known as "mallows," but none today specifically called "English mallow" so we must consign this to the mists of historical twilight. How precisely these items mutated into the utterly unrelated little white puff of manufactured fluffy sugar we know today as a "marshmallow" is a long tale best left for another time.





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