Most should be familiar with the Simon & Garfunkel song, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. I heard this for the first time many years—decades even—ago. I was a big fan of the two and others of their genre. At the time, the words in the title had—for the most part—different meanings for me.
I knew parsley, which was a green thing used to garnish restaurant meals. I recall my father popping this into his mouth and praising its nutritional value. I followed his example for many years, but lost the habit in Germany, where parsley is used as an herb and not a garnish. Because of that, I now eat more parsley than my father ever did.
Rosemary was a girl's name, mostly used by Catholic families in the town where I grew up. Fortunately, I did not understand the difference in religions, and I lived in a family in which prejudices were non-existent or not mentioned (except by my grandmother, one of the all-time leading bigots, but no one paid her much attention or teased her).
A sage was a wise person. I learned this word, when compelled to memorize vocabulary for school. I might have been apprised of another meaning, but only the one mentioned stuck in my brain….until I became more interested in cooking and herbs. I now have a sage bush in my garden, but know no sages.
Thyme was misunderstood: I assumed they sang about time. That's a problem with the English languages: many words sound alike, but have different meanings. English might be easy to learn, from a grammatical aspect, but vocabulary can be challenging.
Herbs and spices were not as widely used in kitchens of my childhood, adolescence, or military service. I recall only salt—the processed variety—and pepper—those black flecks in a little-used shaker. My mother had cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves for baking. I recall her advice to add clove to chicken soup, and I had a weakness for cinnamon toast, which I have not enjoyed for years—decades even.
Now, my herb contains sings the same song, with several additions that might not fit into the lyrics. Each herb is used regularly and adds a distinct note to any dish. I do not know how I lived without them, but have learned that my childhood was not as good as I had imagined. Everything in life is relative, but one must first learn about differences. I have even learned to differentiate between qualities of herbs and spices. Anyone with taste buds and a brain knows that sea salt is far superior to industrial table salt, and even sea salt has quality variations. I have even come to appreciated freshly ground peppercorns, after avoiding industrial pepper for most of my life. Fresh thyme is essential on grilled vegetables, in minestrone, and in many other dishes. Although sage is not my favorite, I tolerate a leaf in saltim bocca. Rosemary cannot fail with any variety of lamb, and a touch adds to the flavor of roast potatoes. As with any herb or spice, too much of a good thing can be really bad.
I liked the song from first hearing, and now I can enjoy the true meaning of the words and the culinary pleasures they provide.
Occasionally, when I consider such things, I feel cheated by certain injustices suffered in my youth. Two of these are salt and pepper with which I was confronted on tables at home and away from home.
I have since discovered good quality sea salt, the being Fleur de Sel from the French Atlantic coastal town of Guérande. Even the rock sea salt, which I put in my own grinder, comes from a different universe than salt sold in super markets. The taste is only mildly related to the white stuff found in salt shakers of my youth.
And pepper, a substance I avoided like the plague in my earlier life. I find little, if any, resemblance between freshly ground black pepper and those black flecks I refused to sprinkle on my food. Many years went by before I even considered adding pepper to anything entering my mouth, because of aversion to anything carrying that name.