Take thyme

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Jan 14, 2021

A few days ago, one of my sons brought over a beef brisket, put it in my "lobster pot," put in the spices from the packet that comes with it, covered it with water and put it on to cook. First bringing it to a boil and then turning down to a middle simmer, he then peeled carrots, potatoes, and turnips, and got the onions (we cook them whole) and cabbage ready to be added when the brisket was about an hour from done.

Then we settled, along with another son, in the living room — we used to call living rooms “sitting rooms” on the farm — for a nice visit while the scent of the spices from the New England boiled dinner wafted in from the kitchen. The spice packet that comes from the store-bought brisket includes black peppercorns, mustard seeds and dill seed. I like to add 2-3 bay leaves, too.

Although it’s easy to corn your own beef, I don’t, because it requires refrigeration for several days to two weeks. I can’t tie up that much space for that long in my fridge. Up on the farm, Grammie would corn the beef in a crock.

We had a great time and a great meal and seconds were dished out. But that left plenty for “next day” meals for me, which is a tradition with boiled dinners. The “next day” dinner for me was two-day dinners of meat and vegetables and one-day corned beef hash for breakfast.

Usually we think of spices merely to flavor our foods but the old phrase, “The spice of life,” has a double meaning. Spices were much more prized hundreds of years ago. They not only enjoyed spices for enhancing the flavor of their foods but used them widely for health and healing.

The whole reason Queen Isabella of Spain funded Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic was because he convinced her he could find a shorter route to get to India for the precious spices so prized, while also avoiding the sail around the infamously dangerous Cape of Good Hope on the tip of Africa. He was also avoiding the treacherous marauding pirates on the way back who saved themselves the time and dangers of the long voyage to India by simply grabbing the richer-than-gold cargo of those coming back.

Columbus had an advantage over other explorers in that he was in possession of maps (he was married to the daughter of a famous map-maker) that showed the eastern coasts of North and South America that had been explored by previous explorers, like the Vikings. His plan was to sail between the continents, not knowing that was a "Central America" in the way.

Then there was the “Silk Road” of Marco Polo fame to China, a long and dangerous overland route. From China, they brought back gold and silk as well as spices, but spices back then were more valuable than gold and the mark-up once back home was far more than the markup from India or China, which could be many thousands of a percent once they got home. That made spices more valuable than gold.

Yes, spices were then, as now, valued for their culinary uses but they also knew the health values. It’s only been the last 120 years or so that we got largely away from the knowledge of using herbs and spices for ailments. Using spices for health and healing is slowly coming back. Thank goodness they not as expensive and are also easily grown, even if only in pots.

I’ve studied and used herbs and spices for most of my life. One that I never really gave any consideration as to its health component is pepper. Plain ole pepper, "piperine." Turns out it’s high on the list of health benefits, including aiding digestion. But maybe black pepper’s most valuable component is enhancement ability. For example, taking it with turmeric. It can increase the benefit of turmeric by as much as 2000%. However, I wouldn’t buy turmeric from the grocery or department stores. Turmeric, like many supplements, can contain fillers like rice flour.

One of my favorite spices is ginger. I love it in coconut soup. I use it along with thyme, salt and pepper, liberally on chicken for roasting. Ginger is brimming with "ailment benefits." If I feel the possibility of a cold coming on, I’ll make my "penicillin" soup with chicken broth, thyme, rosemary, parsley, sage and lots of garlic and ginger — and a pinch of myrrh. If I get a stuffy nose, I sniff a tiny bit of ginger powder up each nostril a few times. Be ready with a hankie. It loosens up fast. I also like candied ginger.

Easy on the myrrh. It’s musty tasting. Back in Cleopatra's day, it was super expensive. It was a gift from the Magi to the baby Jesus, on a par with gold. It’s still pricey. Cleopatra would send a barge off to bring back frankincense and myrrh, both resins. Frankincense is used mostly for incense to purify the air. Myrrh is also crushed into a powder for internal use and made into essential oil for the skin. In only use it for my penicillin soup for its help with congestion and coughing. Frankincense resin comes in nuggets. I use it occasionally for incense, but caution. It puts off a really black smoke — really best if used outdoors.

Sage is another spice I use sparingly as I don’t particularly like the taste. The Native Americans called it the “Eternity herb.” We usually think of as something to throw in the soup pot but it also comes in powder form. One major benefit is aiding the immune system. This is one that’s recommended to not take every day.

Note: You should never take anything internally without first researching and consulting your doctor. There. I’ve taken care of the disclaimer so I won’t get arrested for "practicing."

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, a Maine native and graduate of Belfast schools, now lives in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.

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