I’ve really gotten into baking this winter. During the “snowstorm that wasn’t” over superbowl weekend I got to the grocery store a little late to prepare for being locked indoors due to the impending snowstorm of doom and found that all the sliced bread was gone. So I bought yeast and flour and I spent the uneventful snowpocalypse proofing dough and making various rolls and breads. It was awesome.
One of the better fruits of my baking labor (if I say so myself) was a cinnamon bread. Nothing too fancy: I simply rolled out the dough before baking and applied a generous heap of cinnamon and sugar before rolling it up in the loaf pan. Of course, it was the night of the superbowl, so there was WAY too much food and my bread didn’t get finished. Then it got forgotten. Then it got old. I was cleaning the kitchen today and saw it, still sitting there two weeks later, when I noticed there wasn’t any indication that it was that old. No mold. That’s a little crazy when you figure the sandwich bread I bought AFTER that has already gone moldy and been thrown away… and I know I didn’t add any preservatives to my dough. Except for the cinnamon of course. Which got me thinking about cinnamon…
The word “Cinnamon” has been applied to a variety of different (but related) substances since it was first “discovered” in 2000 B.C.E. In the modern market, there are two different kinds of cinnamon: what is considered “true cinnamon” (Cinnamomumverum) and Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia). True cinnamonis endemic to Sri Lanka and is sometimes referred to as Ceylon cinnamon. It is more sweet in flavor and is the more expensive of the two spices. Cassia is sometimes referred to as Chinese cinnamon because it was first imported from China although it is now widely cultivated throughout Asia. It is usually what is found in grocery stores when you purchase cinnamon and almost certainly what you are buying if the country of origin is Thailand, Vietnam, or China. Continue reading →
During these bitter cold winter days, there is nothing more rewarding than curling up with a good book and a cup of hot tea. But as more and more herbal teas become popular, have you ever stopped to consider the herbal history behind the soothing sips? Take for instance the classic cup of chamomile tea. The name “chamomile” actually refers to a few different plants in the Asteraceae family: German Chamomile (Matricaria chamimila), Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and Stinking Chamomile (Anthemis cotula) just to name a few. In modern applications (and most likely in your tea cupboard) German Chamomile is the most used although medicinally they have been lumped together throughout time.
Pedanius Dioscorides commented on more than one variety of chamomile in his influential text De Materia Medica. Published between 50 and 70 C.E, Dioscorides comments that chamomiles
taken as a drink of a decoction (or by bathing), they expel the menstrual flow, are abortifacients, expel stones (urinary, kidney), and induce urine (Dioscorides)
(A decoction is the extraction of plant chemicals through boiling, which varies slightly from the common modern method of tea which results in an infusion from steeping, although you could boil your herbs in your tea water to easily create a decoction. Very likely in this application, the difference is negligible.)
He also wrote specifically that Stinking Chamomile “is fit for bathing a hardened and inflamed womb” (Dioscorides). Continue reading →
Saffron has been known for centuries. As a dye it yields a deeply hued yellow color, prized by the fashionable Minoan women of Ancient Crete (2700 – 1450 BCE) (Willetts 1976) and later Egypt (Willard 2001). A fresco depicting saffron was found at the site of Akrotiri, a Greek city destroyed (and preserved) by volcanic ash in 1627 BCE. In the work, two finely dressed women are in a field of flowers, gathering the valuable parts that constitute saffron.
Fresco of saffron gatherers from the bronze age excavations in Akrotiri on the greek island of Santorini, Greece.
To some, the robes and jewelry the women are wearing show that this painting was representative of a harvest festival. Others hypothesize that the saffron was an offering to the goddess Eileithyia, whom Homer referred to as “Mogostokos” – the goddess of the birth pains. Regardless, by the time of ancient Greece, saffron was well known and, judging by the fields depicted in the fresco, cultivated. But saffron isn’t celebrated for its longevity, nor for its ties to pregnancy (even though I think that’s worth exploring and will do so later on in this post). No, to most, saffron is known as a potent aphrodisiac. Continue reading →
It’s January 1692 in the brand new colony of Massachusetts. It’s cold. It’s boring. And there isn’t much to eat. We all know the story that comes next: two girls fall ill, afflicted by strange bursts of screaming, terror, and contortionist fits. Soon other girls begin to exhibit the same symptoms. Doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with them so the only logical explanation available is witchcraft. And suddenly over 140 neighbors of this small town were jailed, 20 of them actually executed for their crime of being witches.
There are many theories about what actually happened that year in Salem. Some are cynical: the girls started the whole hysterical panic by playing a game for some attention, or as a way to make themselves feel powerful in a society that didn’t value them, or as a way to “get even” with those members of the community they felt had wronged them. Others are psychological: the religious fervor of this community was so great that of course the devil would send witches to torment them. Their belief was so strong in this absolute truth that they exhibited psychosomatic symptoms because they simply felt that they were truly bewitched. But I think the most enticing theory is drugs. Specifically the naturally occurring precursor to LSD (Caporael, 1976). Continue reading →
Perhaps the most ubiquitous plant associated with the winter holiday season is the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Yes, holly is sung about in all the Christmas carols while we gather around towering spruces and firs but they are noticeable plants any time of the year. December? That is when the lowly poinsettia transforms into the iconic red and green adornment of the season. But it’s history isn’t simply a relationship with Christmas. Long before the holiday was celebrated in North America it was used as a medicinal herb. And later on it was taken from Mexico (some say stolen) by a disgraced diplomat before spreading worldwide. So what better time to write of the secret history of the poinsettia?
You won’t find any reference to the poinsettia in any of the ancient herbal texts because it was unknown to the western world until the 1800s. Native to what is now Mexico, the Aztecs utilized the plant they called cuetlaxochitle to reduce fever and stimulate lactation. But it wasn’t until 1828 that the American Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, “discovered” the plant growing in Mexico and sent it back to the United States. Continue reading →