Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Learning Herbs & Spices from Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy is leading a poetry workshop in Wellfleet this week. (If you didn’t sign up, never fear: a wait-list seems to be forming for 2011.) Then, on Thursday, she will hold a poetry reading "with her students" at the Wellfleet Public Library. Marge Piercy is a marvelous poet. Before starting Chez Sven, I worked for Marge as a personal assistant. One of my favorite assignments was sorting herbs. Twice a year, Marge orders herbs and spices from a mail-order company ...

A box of plastic packets has arrived UPS. Between us, on the library table, await empty glass jars of all shapes and sizes, like an army ready to receive booty.

I reach for the top packet and say out loud, “Powdered Turkish Bay Leaves,” as if ushering in royalty.

Marge puts a check next to that item on her list. Meanwhile I’m busy making a funnel out of a piece of paper. My boss chooses a jar of appropriate size and hands it across the table. Carefully I pour in the contents while she scribbles a label with a black felt pen. The air sparkles with the scent of bay, transporting me to far-off lands.

I choose a spice from the top of the pile. “Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia Cinnamon,” I call out, already in Cinnamon Heaven.

Marge scribbles and hands me another packet. From apple pie for dessert, backwards we go to the main course.

“Broken Leaf French Tarragon,” I announce.

Tarragon is a personal favorite, one used often with fish in France.

Then I receive cumin and cilantro, all at once. They remind me of the chili that seasoned my workplace the week before. It smelled so good!

Most of Marge’s recipes contain herbs. Many of the herbs grow in her garden: parsley, several different kinds of basil, dill, cilantro, thyme, and savory. She seems to use them all. During winter, dried herbs must stand in for the real thing.

I pour “Herbes de Provence” into a jar. In my mind, I grill ka-bobs in France, beside a field of lavender. As I open “Fines Herbes,” I find a seat in a café and order an omelette. But Marge interrupts this reverie with “Whole Spanish Rosemary Leaves,” the size and shape of Christmas tree needles. I revel in the scent of roasted lamb with garlic, taste the mint jelly on my tongue …

The first time I helped with an herb shipment, I was only allowed to observe. The second time, I participated and even placed an order myself. I went home that day with my spice packets, ready to cook up a storm. There’s nothing like fresh herbs and spices. Yes, I’ve become a convert. Thank you, Marge!