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.