Like most Old World herbs, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has been a mainstay of cooks and apothecaries throughout history and, like most herbs, it has been bestowed mythical powers.
In particular, the plant’s strong resinous scent led early Romans and Greeks to believe that this Mediterranean herb was a powerful memory booster. Rosemary eventually grew into a symbol of love and fidelity, and brides and grooms wore crowns of rosemary’s needlelike stems to make sure they would not forget their vows.
Even today, many Greek brides tuck sprigs of rosemary in their bouquets, and students often keep a sprig of rosemary close by while studying for exams.
Rosemary also played an important role in death. In Athens and Rome, rosemary sprigs were placed on coffins and in the hands of the deceased. Bushes were also grown around tombs, all this as a sign that departed relatives would not be forgotten. The custom carried on to Great Britain, and mourners in Wales still place stems of rosemary in the hands of their dead.
Early Christians, especially, had a strong connection with rosemary. This evergreen shrub makes a small blue flower that prompts some cultures to call the plant “Mary’s Mantle.” Legend has it that during the holy family’s flight to Egypt, Mary spread her scarf over a rosemary bush, thus causing the flowers to turn blue.
Mary also supposedly dried her infant’s clothes on a rosemary bush and, according to English poet John Oxenham, it was Jesus’ scent that makes the plant so “rare, sacred, and sweet.” And although rosemary bushes in Baton Rouge’s warm climate can grow as high as a house, a thousand years or so ago it was believed that rosemary never grew taller than the height of Jesus Christ.
Mixing Christianity with black magic, young women in medieval England used rosemary on July 21, the eve of the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, to attain prophetic dreams. Throughout Europe, rosemary was placed under pillows to ward off nightmares and evil spirits. A robust rosemary bush in a garden also indicated that a strong woman headed the household, and it is rumored that many a husband yanked rosemary bushes out of the ground when they grew too large.
Considered a stimulating herb, medicinally the Old World used rosemary mainly as a tonic and as an anti-inflammatory. The strong smelling herb was also believed to combat the plague, flatulence, headaches, convulsions, moths and body odor. Rosemary’s robust piney fragrance comes from the plant’s healthy dose of volatile oil, flavonoids, and phenolic acids, constituents that combine to make it a natural antiseptic.
For this reason, hospitals through the centuries widely used rosemary as a disinfectant.
These germ-killing powers also led England jailers to adorn courts of law with rosemary to protect everyone from “jail fever” (thyphus).
Rosemary thrives in warm, dry weather. It grows particularly well along seacoasts, where it lives off sea spray, earning it another nickname, “Dew of the Sea.” This perennial also likes lots of sun, but in south Louisiana it has been reported to grow well in part shade.
As anyone who’s ever cooked with rosemary knows, fresh is infinitely more flavorful, and a little goes a very long way. So, when seasoning soups or stews, it’s usually best to add a whole sprig of rosemary and remove before serving. Whole stems can also be placed on top of chicken, roasts and game. And tough stems with leaves removed make excellent barbecue skewers.
Surprisingly, rosemary pairs well with sweets. For a delightful addition to desserts and tea, try pounding rosemary’s tender tips with sugar and let it sit for a few days. The herb is also delicious in sorbets, jellies and cookies. But if you feel the taste is too strong for any of your cooking, grow rosemary in your garden anyway.
Not only does it make a striking specimen plant, but you never know when you’ll need help chasing off that nasty old evil eye.
Calling all readers “of a certain age.” What was your favorite place to grab a late-night snack through the late 1970s (before fast food)?
After a football game or bowling, did you drive to the Toddle House for a hamburger steak?
Stop by Alessi’s for curly Q potatoes, or meet your buddies at Hopper’s for a malt? Let me know where your gang liked to meet and what you typically ordered, and I’ll include your memories in an upcoming story on this important part of our area’s food history.
SOURCES: http://www.chow.com, New Encyclopedia of Herbs (Herb Society of America, 2001), Food (Waverley Root, 1980), Herbs (Lesley Bremness, 1990), Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs (Herb Society of America, 2007)
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s forthcoming title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at email@example.com.