Bites of History: Mint

Photo by Cynthia L. NoblesSerop's Restaurant puts plenty of fresh mint leaves in its Tabbouleh, which is served with lemon and tomato slices on romaine lettuce leaves.
Photo by Cynthia L. NoblesSerop's Restaurant puts plenty of fresh mint leaves in its Tabbouleh, which is served with lemon and tomato slices on romaine lettuce leaves.

By Cynthia L. Nobles

American writer H. Jackson Brown Jr. once said, “If someone offers you a breath mint, accept it.”

True, mint often saves us from embarrassment. But the herb that flavors Altoids and many of our favorite gums, toothpastes and mouthwashes has a myriad of uses. In fact, mint is one of history’s medicinal and culinary superstars and is at the center of numerous legends.

Native to the Mediterranean region, mint (family Lamiaceae) has been used since early civilization and was a favorite garden plant of the pharoahs. Its modern name came from the ancient Greeks, who believed that Pluto, ruler of the underworld, had eyes for the lovely young nymph Minthe.

Persephone, the god’s jealous wife, became enraged and transformed Minthe into a plant, so that all would be free to trample her. Unable to undo the spell, Pluto gave his now-rooted heartthrob a sweet smell that intensified when she was tread on. The name Minthe eventually evolved into the name of the herb, mint.

The Greek physician Hippocrates armed himself with the Pluto/Minthe story and promptly warned men that eating too much mint caused impotence. On the positive side, the Greeks also gave mint its reputation as the symbol of hospitality.

The popular story is that two hungry strangers were walking through a village and were being ignored. Finally, an old couple with the names Philemon and Baucis offered them food, but first refreshed the table with a swish of mint. Turns out, the strangers were the gods Zeus and Hermes in disguise, and they rewarded their hosts by turning their humble home into a temple.

The strong-smelling herb was believed to have phenomenal powers, and Greek athletes rubbed bruised leaves on their skin after bathing to increase strength. In Rome, Pliny advocated that students wear wreaths of mint to sharpen the mind, and senators wore sprigs of the aromatic plant, believing it helped their oratory skills and controlled tempers.

Both Greeks and Romans flavored drinking water with refreshing mint and steeped it in their baths. Slaves drank a tonic made from barley water flavored with mint, and ancient Hebrews used the sweet-smelling herb to freshen stale synagogue floors. After the Romans brought mint to Europe, the people of the Middle Ages used the stems and leaves for insect bites and digestive problems. It purified drinking water that had turned sour on long ocean voyages, and it also, ta-dah! — freshened breath and whitened teeth.

Colonists brought peppermint and spearmint to our shores for making both medicine and an untaxed and refreshing tea. Menthol gives mint its characteristic cool, yet warming and sharp smell and taste, and this powerful volatile oil is what makes our lips tingle when we use mouth fresheners and eat mint candies. Peppermint, in particular, is extremely strong, with just 1 pound of the fresh herb flavoring more than 135,000 sticks of gum.

The Herb Society of America reports that the genus Mentha consists of 25 “often variable” species. This complex group hybridizes in both the wild and cultivation, which makes individual plants often difficult to identify, and which results in hundreds of varieties.

If you go to the nursery, some plants you’ll find may be labeled banana mint, pineapple mint, chocolate mint, apple mint or even macho mint. All are fine culinary herbs, but spearmint is the preferred mint for cooking.

The square-stemmed, low-growing bright green plant is common in many south Louisiana gardens, and anyone who grows any kind of mint knows the herb loves our climate and will take over everything if not controlled.

So if you have a bumper crop of mint, be adventurous. Much more than a legendary breath freshener, this versatile herb adds a cooling touch to tea, complements chocolate and is a natural with lamb. For centuries, it has shown up in countless sauces, salads, soups, meat dishes, desserts and cocktails. And in your kitchen it will give a whole new dimension to just about anything you cook.e_SFlb

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group . You can contact her at noblescynthia@gmail.com.