Herbs and Spices

With Charleston’s well-documented kitchen gardens, her love of the imported, and her Creole mix in the kitchen, her cooks have long leaned toward highly seasoned fare. The Deas family daybook in the collection of the South Carolina Historical Society was written sometime prior to 1749. It typifies the colony’s burgeoning interest in botany, and includes precise instructions for gardening in the subtropical Lowcountry. In February, it notes, “Dung yr ground well, & sow cabbage, savoys, coloworti, salloting of all sorts—carrots, spinago, onions, parsley, beets, scorsonoroot—plant melons & cucumbers, Windsor and half-spur beans, dwarf peas, all sorts of sweet herbs—strawberries, rue, tansie, balm, sage, sorrol, horseradish, plant asparagus, artichokes, set onions and leeks.” Thyme, hyssop, marjoram, savory, pennyroyal, mint, and peppers are also mentioned in the fragile manuscript, along with notes on curing scurvy (“take the root of sasafras . . .”), and the reigns of British royalty (ending at George II). “In dry and hot weather,” the scribe warns, “cut as few herbs as you can except such as you are to dry for winter.”

Today, no self-respecting cook in the “Holy City” is without at least a few mint plants, however minuscule the dooryard; most cooks have an assortment of culinary herbs not unlike those of eighteenth-century Charleston gardeners. Avoid those little bottles of herbs sold at exorbitant prices at the big grocery stores: no telling how long ago they were grown and under what conditions. Many Lowcountry recipes call for a bouquet garni, assuming the reader knows to tie sprigs of thyme and parsley to a rib of celery and a bay leaf. Others call for a handful of fresh herbs; the recipes include suggestions.

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