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20 november 2012

As in many of the Reaktion Edible books, definitional concerns appear on every page of Gary Allen's Herbs. Herbs mean one thing to the botanist, another to the proponent of alternative medicine. In the kitchen, they serve most of the functions that spices serve. The main difference between a herb and a spice is that the former comes from the leafy or flowery part of the plant, and the latter is a seed, root, or bark. But there are many crossovers. In the end it's a matter of feel. Something choppable is an herb, something that can be reduced to powder is a spice. Though whatever dichotomy you set up, you can immediately think of exceptions.

Allen's tour through the world of herbs is desultory and not compulsively organized. There's considerable repetition, and much of the book becomes a ticking off of one herb after another as we work our way around the globe. In this, Allen's work suffers from some of the same problems that, wouldn't you know it, beset Fred Czarra's book Spices for the same series. Once again herbs and spices are hard to distinguish. And maybe just plain hard to write about. There's a plethora of both in the world's kitchens, and they can seem little distinguishable from each other, or as one moves across their range. Granted, at the extremes, it's hard to confuse things like nettles and lemongrass. But the many marjorams from the many oreganos?

Unlike Czarra, who treats just five spices, Allen covers as many culinary herbs as he possibly can. (He tries to avoid their medical uses, but can't quite stick to that resolve either, possibly since most mentions of herbs in world literary history focus on their powers as remedies for ailments.) Allen does treat the "global history" imperative seriously. He starts from Europe and spirals outwards towards the native herb repertoires of the other continents. But anymore, what is a "native" herb? The weeds of one continent are the heirloom herbs of another. One definition of a herb might be a plant that springs up in the wake of human migrations; and by the year 2012, everybody has migrated everywhere.

I have experimented with growing almost every possible herb. (No, not that one.) In North Texas, with its long droughts and bizarre growing season (frost till Easter, weeks of highs near 40 Celsius, frost by Thanksgiving again), few of these herbs have long survived. The best-adapted include:

… and that's about it. There are some other oddities here and there: columbine, with its edible flowers; saffron crocus, which yield the famous spice-like "stigmas" in the center of its flowers; sweet olive, which is one of the few herbs I can barely smell (it overpowers other people), and I am told has culinary applications that I haven't tried. But most of the other well-known kitchen herbs here turn brown from the heat as soon as there's no longer any danger of them turning black from the frost. I did plant lemongrass this year, and it grew to the size of a serious prairie grass, but Allen reports that frost will do it in. I hope so, or the back garden will be entirely lemongrass next year.

The joy of herbs is, of course, going out into the garden with a pair of scissors just before cooking. That, and looking at a recipe in the happy knowledge that you have two or three ingredients ready to come fresh out of the ground instead of out dry of one of those little overpriced vials.

Allen, Gary. Herbs: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2012.