Going Beyond The Flavor: The Bay Leaf

Photo: Julia Manzerova/Flickr

Photo: Julia Manzerova/Flickr

Last night, I decided to look into the refrigerator and use up as much of our fresh produce and fresh meat as possible.   I instantly thought of apricot chicken but alas only had fig preserves.  Fig Chicken it is!  I wielded my creative culinary prowess like there was no tomorrow.  Before popping my figged-out chicken into the oven, I threw in my good luck charm…a fresh bay leaf.

After I closed the door on my creation, I thought “What is it with the bay leaf? What makes it so essential to American cooking?”  This, my dear readers, began my exploration of the bay leaf and its history.

Apparently, this herb has a story like no other.  I cannot sign off on that statement but I will tell you that it does seem to have a fantastical past.  Most sources say the bay tree originated in Asia Minor.   The Romans used it quite a bit in public life and believed it even protected against thunderstorms. Legend has it that the champions of the first Olympic games were crowned with the green leaf.   While Romans considered the bay tree a symbol of glory, in Shakespeare’s time, a popular notion prevailed: the death of a bay tree would soon be followed by a devastating disaster.

In Culpepper’s Complete Herbal dated back to the 1600s, the oil of bay berries was used to cure pimples as well as “all griefs and pains proceeding from the wind….”    (Good to know).

What is the bay leaf to me?

Despite its glorious past, my personal bay leaf is an everyday constant.  I even chewed one as a child after my mother explicitly told me not to do so.  It was quite awful and since then I had new found respect for the small leaf.  Once I began cooking for myself, I dropped it into soups, meaty dishes, and culinary craft creations (such as my fig chicken).

Its flavoring powers are divine and when you get a strong waft of the bay leaf, you know you done good.

Do you have a strong relationship with an herb? Have you ever been prompted to look up its origin?  I know I’m not alone….share your stories below.

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Associate Producer, Here & Now Most recently, Jessica worked as an associate producer at WBUR's daily local program, Radio Boston. Jessica moved to Boston in 2008 and has lived many places since leaving her native Texas. After graduating from college, Jessica worked as a federal employee, documentary film festival producer, oral historian, university teaching assistant, traveling saleswoman and klezmer musician. Her work and projects have appeared in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Bust, Barnard Magazine, National Public Radio, Public Radio International (PRI), and the BBC. Jessica's freelance radio work has received various awards including accolades from the Religion Newswriters Association and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. As a Fulbright Scholar in El Salvador, Jessica collected and studied oral histories from the Jewish Community based in San Salvador. Jessica received her B.A. in political science from Columbia University’s Barnard College and her M.A. in history from Indiana University. She learned how to make radio from the phenomenal folks at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Jessica lives in Somerville with her husband, twin son and daughter, and two cats. To learn more about Jessica’s projects, both current and past, please visit www.jessicaalpert.com.