No, I’m not talking about George Clooney’s aunt. I know she’s dead. I’m talking about Rosemary the herb, and I’m going to write her name like that, capital R, because for me, she is the Queen of All Things Culinary.
I grew up in a culture of daily home cooking. We are not a people big on take-out Chinese food, frozen pizza, or greasy burgers sold by a scary red-haired clown in a yellow suit. That is not for us. You’ve got to eat something with a spoon, we like to say. Meaning, something made at home that actually requires you to sit down at a real table and scoop mouthfuls of warm grub with an actual metal spoon. Or fork, but you’ve got to use a spoon to eat soup, and a meal without soup isn’t a meal.
We like to cook. We like to talk about cooking. We like to talk about how great we are at cooking. And we love to tell the world how great our national dishes, like pasulj (a kind of bean stew) or punjena paprika (peppers stuffed with meat and rice), really are. Yet, in my opinion, up until a few years ago, our dishes used to be, how shall I put this, sort of bland(ish) actually. The reason for this was very simple. Serbian cuisine used to recognize two spices and two spices only: pepper and cinnamon. Besides, of course, adding salt (or sugar) to whatever you made, you were on occasion allowed to sprinkle a little bit of pepper, for example, to season your soup. But you sprinkled very little, and very carefully. In Serbia pepper is sold in tiny packs of 10 grams each (pepper evidently being as dangerous as uranium), which is just enough to make you sneeze, but not enough to actually make a difference in your plate. For those of you unfamiliar with European measures, let me explain just how small a 10 gram pack of anything is. Take a look at your bookshelf, the one where you keep your old magazines and those library books you took out two years ago and forgot to return. You know, that do-it-yourself book about how you can, on your own and with no tools at all, change the oil in your car in just five easy steps. On top of that book you will see a weird dusting of very small particles, something resembling dirty flour. That, my friend, is dust. And you’ve probably got about 100 grams of it on that book. Now imagine what 10 grams of pepper looks like.
Cinnamon, I must admit, my family only used around the holidays. For years I thought I absolutely hated this spice, though I don’t think I could have told you why at the time. Now I know my hatred came from the fact that we used it only once a year, and then too much of it (though “too much” is a relative term in this case). As I said, we only used it in sweets prepared around the holidays (New Year’s usually), and then my mother added spoonfuls of it regardless of whether it actually went with whatever dessert she made or not. Often she dusted crêpes with it so generously that each crêpe became just a little mound of cinnamon unrecognizable as what it actually was or was supposed to be.
Yet cinnamon, like pepper, can be purchased only in very small packs of maybe 20 grams each. Mom went crazy around the holidays and bought 30, sometimes even 40 or 50 grams, and in what can only be explained as an attempt to overcompensate for not using cinnamon at all for the rest of the year, dusted it over everything, from crêpes and pies to the living room carpet and the basement walls. If you walked into my house on December 31, for example, you probably thought you were entering a cinnamon processing plant. Has anyone out there read “Dune” by Frank Herbert? Well, I can tell you I had unnaturally blue eyes for about five years when I was a kid, just like the characters in the “Dune” books. In his novels Herbert invented a planet called Arrakis, where the use of a weird spice called mélange causes widespread addiction often manifested in the blueness of one’s eyes. This mélange substance, in my mind, always represented just a very large quantity of cinnamon. Maybe Herbert’s mother came from Serbia. I don’t know. One thing is for sure: my mom would have felt right at home at Herbert’s Arrakis.
Several years ago, when our cable TV providers started offering Western food channels in their packages, our cuisine suddenly went Technicolor. It was as if someone unexpectedly turned the light on in a previously very dark room. Out of the blue, Jamie Oliver busted into our kitchens, charmingly teaching us how to add all kinds of stuff to our old boring dishes. Suddenly we discovered cloves, cumin, coriander, mustard seed, ginger, nutmeg, oregano, saffron, sage, bay leaf, and of course, Rosemary.
The funny thing is that we had Rosemary growing in our very own backyards for decades. In my own yard I have a large bush which, for the longest time, only my neighbor’s cat Gary used to deodorize himself with. I spent months watching him stroll casually across the street, head straight for that bush, then rub his head and underside against its needle-like leaves. Now, I am not the world’s greatest cook. You get no argument there. But it should not have taken me that long to figure out that what’s good enough for Gary’s fur should be good enough for my soup. Though, maybe it was exactly the sight of Gary rubbing himself sensually against that bush that made me look the other way, thus causing me to miss out on an herb that is, in a word, FANTASTIC.
There is no comparison between our food as it used to be and as it is now, enriched as it definitely has become by the many spices and herbs we’ve discovered over the past few years. Even the good old but often boring pasulj tastes better with a few nice Rosemary leaves. Though, I suppose I should tell you that, like my mother many years ago, I tend to overdo and overuse. I have now started adding Rosemary to pretty much everything, from soup and roasted chicken to coffee and my toothpaste. Can a person become addicted to Rosemary, and what will the withdrawal stage be like?
It’s not unusual for a bunch of Serbs to sit around, drinking Turkish coffee and smoking American cigarettes, and discuss how much better our food is than, for example, the overrated Italian pizza/pasta cuisine. And it is better; especially now that we’ve discovered “Jamie’s Italy.”