In my first couple years of cooking, I’ve been willing to experiment with almost any herb or spice on the shelf. Granted, my relationship with coriander isn’t as close as we’d like, and I’ve only flirted with bay leaves, but in general, I’ve always tried to be fair in my spice-ifying.
I once used sage in a dish simply because I hadn’t used it for a few weeks. Turns out it doesn’t work very well on ice cream. My point is that a cook should stay on good terms with all the herbs and spices in the pantry, and not become too attached to any of them.
Which is why I was taken aback the other day, when I reached for the rosemary. Behind the rosemary, in the back, with no label and a cap that had never been removed, I saw a container of marjoram. And I realized that over the last two years, in preparing hundreds of dishes, I have never used marjoram. I felt bad.
While I was fawning over flashier spices, I was ignoring something that was considered downright medicinal by Hippocrates. And some historical botanists (botanical historians?) believe the ‘hyssop’ referred to in the Passover story was actually marjoram!
Not impressed yet? Well, marjoram was also name-dropped by Shakespeare in Sonnet 99: “And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair... Which, out of context, makes marjoram seem like some sort of depilatory, which it’s not, I’m pretty sure.I couldn’t call myself a cook until I had used everything on my rack at least a few times. But I need to feel comfortable with a new ingredient, so we arranged to meet.
At the start of the interview, I must say that marjoram was a bit defensive, but as we talked more, she loosened up. Unfortunately, all audio from the interview was lost, so I’ve had to reconstruct the conversation from memory.
“Before we get started…what would you prefer to be called? Can I call you Marj?”
“That’s fine...Just don’t call me oregano. It’s really irritating how often people mix us up – sure, we’re the same genus but c’mon, we’re ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SPECIES!
Anyway, I’m obviously milder and sweeter than oregano. The only thing we have in common is the antioxidant thing, and that’ll be passé soon."
“You’ve made it clear that you want to distance yourself from your cousin, but isn’t it true that oregano used to be known as ‘wild marjoram?’ Aren’t you, in fact, trying to have it both ways? Isn’t it your plan that if someone runs out of oregano, they’ll reach for you instead?”
“That’s outrageous! Look—I’ve always been open about my family – I don’t deny that my legal name is ‘Origanum marjorana,’ but that’s not how I define myself.
After all, I’m also a member of the mint family, and some people say I remind them of thyme – these are all just labels…do they really mean anything?”
“Well, actually we…need the labels so we know what’s in the different jars--
“But do we ever really know what’s in any jar? Nobody knew I could talk, because nobody cared. Well now I’m giving an interview! I don’t hear oregano talking!”
“On a less…confrontational note, how long have you been in the seasoning game? I know you’ve been around since at least 2008, because that’s when I got most of my spices. But I understand you’ve been around even longer than that, am I right?
“First, I have to stop you. I'm an herb, not a spice. A lot of us are -- we just get stuck on the 'spice' rack. As to your question, lemme say this in ancient Egypt, I was used to appease the gods during embalming. THE GODS THEMSELVES, I TELL YOU! So, yeah, I’ve been around a while.”
“Many people believe you have healing powers – it’s said that you can cure dozens of conditions -- sleep apnea, tonsillitis, anxiety -- in addition to assuaging grief and deflecting bad luck. Do you support these claims?”
“Look, I may be a plant, but I’m not stupid. Of course I can’t cure somebody’s tonsillitis. I was just talking with my friend Sage about these whack-job aromatherapy people.
I think it all started with one loony-tune herbalist in the sixteenth century named Dodoen, who claimed that smelling me “mundifieth the brayne.” Not that some people couldn’t benefit from a little brain mundifying, if you know what I mean.
So I’m not claiming to be medicinal, alright? I will say that if you use me as part of a nice rub on some leg of lamb, THAT might cure a lot of your ills. Oh – and if you find me on top of a grave, the dead person is guaranteed a good afterlife. That one’s true.”
“Some would say that you’re too sensitive, and that may have led to your whole image problem. How do you respond?”
“I don’t think I’m overly sensitive. Sure, I don’t do well with frost, or even cold, and I prefer well-drained soil (who doesn’t?). And I really need full sun exposure. Oh, I need a lot of room to spread out. Other than that, I think I’m pretty easy-going.”
“Let’s get back to the subject of cooking. At the moment, you’re thought of as an unusual spice --sorry, herb -- but you’ve been popular in the past. How do you plan on regaining your popularity?”
“If people knew how versatile I am, we wouldn’t have to have this discussion. Trying French cooking? There’s a little thing called herbes de Provence – can’t do it without me.
Feeling like sausage? Hell, in Germany I’m known as the ‘sausage herb.’ And if you’re into British food, you can try me with goose and chestnuts. Just -- try me on something. Please. I’m desperate. Could you at least sprinkle me on some meatloaf?”