Flip through a cookbook from the 1950's, those dark, hazy images in muddy shades of brown and autumn golds, or brash primary colors, or the 1960's brightening into gaudy lemon, turquoise and bubble gum pink, food arrayed out in glorious Technicolor on coordinating cloths, silver perfectly aligned, crazy collections of centerpieces. Whole turkeys and roasts on imposing platters, crowns of jello garnished with glistening lipstick-colored maraschino cherries, miles of brown foodstuff that are often impossible to define.
Garnishes of red and white radish slices, twists of orange and limes, chunky flowers carved from carrots and whole tomatoes dress each dish offering a defining landscape, color to an otherwise flat expanse of brown or beige (ah the glamorous food of our childhood). Rings of pineapple and whole strawberries, and tiny shapes cut out from bright red and green peppers provide a certain swashbuckling gaiety, a sign of the times
But the herbs took pride of place, great clumps and sprays of curly-leafed parsley, seemingly whole nosegays of mint or sage, branches of rosemary filled every empty space. Herbs festooned in garlands and wreaths, draped around whole lobsters and woven in and among the shrimp. Chicken legs and lamb chops topped in tiny paper hats are held up by bundles of herbs, clusters of herbs in all their deep jade and forest greenery are tossed around serving platters, main courses and appetizers, soups and sides as if dozens of elfin bridesmaids had paused in that dining room and tossed bouquets of herbs across the table.
Condiment, Seasoning, Garnish, Décor
Tiny, delicate herbs tossed elegantly, sparingly across the tabletop. Single branches of feminine chervil and feathery dill dance across single servings, ramekins and demitasses, miniature tarts and cakes, as if blown around the room unexpectedly, placed by fairy hands. Tiny stems with tiny drops of thyme repose atop creamy concoctions, sweet or savory, a hint at what is inside, or so we are led to believe.
The very essence of herbal decor has changed. No longer placed in grand leafage, vegetation in great bunches cluttering the serving platter, aggressively announcing their presence. An unnecessary bundle of green, imposing shrubs. Now exquisite affectation, gracefully dropped in some ethereal, delightful display of sensibility. As if an afterthought. Tender shoots, a scattering of baby leafs in unexpected, mystifying arrangement.
Garish color schemes have given way to pretty pastels, bold statements to feminine composition. Hearty dishes to pretty little confections. But herbs ever present, their presence ever mysterious.
Basil, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
Don't forget to use the herbs I have planted for you, mom. You just need to open the kitchen window and there they are, son exclaims as he shows me the herb garden he has placed on the balcony. And don't forget to water those herbs, this gift from your son, my husband adds, just a tiny wedge of sarcasm edging his voice.
Tiny sachets of lavender fill my drawer, miniscule pearls of lavender from my wedding bouquet.
Tarragon, sorrel, watercress, the proud trio of French herbs. Tarragon stirred into sauces, stuffed under chicken skin, floating in jars of pickles in brine. Fines herbes, sauce béarnaise. Sorrel, his favorite, chopped and turned into soup or sauce à l'oseille, his favorites, reminiscent of happy childhood moments. I broke his heart when I told him that I didn't like it, that it was too bitter for my unaccustomed taste. Watercress, peppery, a faint hint of mustard, like rocket, a favorite, yet so very French.
Ah me! Love cannot be cured by herbs. - Ovid
Herbal remedies. My mother-in-law was a great believer in the healing powers of herbal teas. Infusions of chamomile and mint, lime and verbena could cure most anything. She would brew a pot each night, an infusion, passing around tiny white ceramic cups once used to serve coffee in some little French café, urging the steaming hot brew upon us just before bed. Une tisane.
An herbal tea for a good night's sleep, Nuit Calme. One for an oncoming cold or to soothe stress. Elder against that nightmarish coup de froid, a chill, always on her mind, her windows always shut tight, her home sealed against the weather. Une tisane, an herbal infusion, was the perfect cure-all and do not refuse her offer of one as a nightcap. A magic potion.
She rarely used herbs in her cooking, possibly a thick branch or three of thyme or rosemary, un bouquet garni, would find its way into a broth in which a chicken or chunks of veal would poach, aromatic. But her pantry was overflowing with boxes and sachets of herbs for steeping, herbs for curing, herbs for healing. Herbs for a good night's sleep.