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We crave food with stories … The fact that we can even entertain a phrase like "it's just food" emphasizes the strange time we live in. Because until the advent of the modern grocery, every food had a story. Anonymous food is not the norm, it's the aberration… . [Most] food comes heavy with history and meaning.
—Rowan Jacobsen, American Terroir, 2010
Once upon a time, in a cantina not far from the U.S./Mexico border, I heard a vineyard keeper, a winemaker, a smuggler of sotol, a rancher, a soil scientist, a weatherman, and a cultural geographer arguing about the term terroir.
"It is the very taste of place—the vineyard's own geological, ecological, and cultural history—embodied in the grape," the man who pruned and pampered the vines asserted.
"But it is not limited to the grape alone, for the yeast also echoes the place as it ferments the grape into wine," argued the vintner. "The yeast is the broker for all those flavors from the earth, raising them up from the ripening and rotting."
"Well, you talk as though terroir occurs only in wine," said the smuggler. "You need to try some of this sotol that just came in from Coahuila."
"And you speak as if it is only found in wine and spirits," said the cattleman. "You ought to taste my grass-fed beef, unadorned, right off the grill."
"But it's the parent materials and their decomposition—the geochemistry—that really determine the taste of place," the soil scientist said with an air of authority.
"Well, if rain and drought and heat and cold never broke down that parent material and stressed the plants that grew upon it," argued the climatologist, "you'd never capture that chemistry in a bottle."
The cultural geographer had begun to assert that all these factors were threaded together in every molecule of every bite or sip we take, when into the cantina staggered a wild-eyed storyteller. They could not tell if he was under the influence, or inherently off-kilter. Although he barged in on them uninvited, they had the generosity to welcome him just the same. The geographer turned to him and offered, "You may be able to help us resolve our argument about terroir. We just can't agree whether it is the soil, the climate, the historical ecology, or the skill of the producer which makes a food or wine come alive."
The storyteller looked at them and began to laugh like a madman, slapping his thighs and then waving his arms.
"No, no, no. It's the genius loci caught in the bottle… . It's the story in the wine, the myth in the mescal, the ballyhoo in the beef. It's when they enter your memory and lodge in your dreams … that's the taste of place, that's the terroir …"
The book you are about to read tests those hypotheses against the weight of evidence uncovered in the desert borderlands, where Mexico meets the United States. As you digest these stories, I hope the true story of the taste of place becomes revealed to you.
Let's see what happens.
The Verve in the Herb
A Culinary Natural History
I am stumbling along a desert ridge of volcanic rocks on a hundred-degree day, wondering whether I've taken my interest in learning where my food comes from a bit too literally. Big Bend is far behind me, but a mass of intimidating chain cholla cacti is immediately in front of me. I must be sweating, but my cotton clothes are eerily dry, as if my body has already lost all of the water it has to shed. Nevertheless, I continue to saunter between boulders as black as coal, picking leaves off of a desert shrub that is taking the heat far better than I can.
I rub a few leaves between my thumb and forefinger, and their fragrance suddenly pervades the dry air, as if I had just broken a bottle of perfume against one of the sharp basalt rocks at my feet. Like a hit of smelling salts, this desert herb awakens me and makes me remember the question that originally brought me to this godforsaken place:
Just why do the herbs of a desert landscape seem so aromatic, and why do desert spices and incenses seem so pungent?
I needed questions like these to force me out into the field, and out of my blindered way of seeing and smelling the world. They are the only questions I ponder while my wife and I are out picking the leaves of wild oregano with a group of Seri Indian hunter-gatherers. While Laurie talks and sings traditional songs with some of the Seri women, I wander back and forth across this anonymous ridge halfway down the Sonoran Desert coast of the Gulf of California, trying to learn something new about the taste of this bright and shining place. The basalt boulders and volcanic gravel around me absorb the heat of the desert enough to urge me on and keep me moving, searching for a cool breeze as much as for oregano leaves.
To the uninitiated eye, it may look as though I am harvesting rather randomly, standing by a shrub for a few minutes, then moving on toward another one upslope before I have removed all the leaves from the first. But that's because the Seri have instructed us to never take all the leaves off of one bush. Instead, they've taught us how to sample its foliage, and then select only the smaller and older leaves, which exude the strongest fragrances. I zigzag along the ridge as I do this, all the while pondering the pungency question as if it is my crossword puzzle or Zen koan for the day.
Of course, the oregano here is not the true Mediterranean or Greek oregano of the Old World—the plant in the mint family given the name Origanum vulgare. Instead, it is one of several Mexican oreganos in the verbena family, and this particular species is named Lippia palmeri. Aside from its vernacular name, what it has in common with the herb long harvested by the Greeks is two aromatic oils in its leaves that lend them their characteristic fragrances and flavors: carvacrol and thymol. Indeed, these oils are highly valued for their culinary contributions to salads, sauces, breads, and marinated meats regardless of whether they come from the leaves of oregano or from those of marjoram, Syrian hyssop, or various thymes.
In fact, these same aromatic oils can be found in the herbs and shrubs of a number of different arid and semiarid lands around the world, and in several plant families that have long histories in desert climes. When I wear my geeky Dr. Science hat as a culinary naturalist, this chemical convergence in herbs reminds me of the concept of parallel evolution, like gerbils, jerboas, and kangaroo rats all hip-hopping along in different deserts.
But this chemical convergence interests me for a far more personal reason: Halfway around the world from where I am picking wild oregano for a taste of its essential oils, my Lebanese cousins are involved in a similar harvest at this time of year. They are out on some limestone ridge above the Beqa Valley of eastern Lebanon harvesting the wild thyme they call zaatar. It is an irrepressibly aromatic herb that is ground and mixed with sesame seeds, sumac berries, sea salt, and a few secret ingredients to make the signature spice of Lebanese cuisine that is of the same name. The smoothness of sesame oil, the lemony tartness of the sumac, and the sharpness of sea salt seem to balance the sharp, warm pungency of carvacrol with the cooling, balsamic, almost bittersweet flavor of thymol. My uncles are so enamored by the particular flavor of the wild thyme gleaned from our ancestral mountains that they refuse to let me purchase or eat zaatar spice blends from other parts of Lebanon, from Palestine, from Syria, or from Jordan.
"Throw that stuff away—it looks and smells like sawdust spiked with what you Americans call bebbers," one of my more opinionated Lebanese uncles once spat out. He had spotted a bag of bright green zaatar I had half hidden in my luggage, one that I had purchased at the Souk el-Tayeb Farmers Market in Beirut. "You want zaatar? I'll give you the REAL zaatar that our family has harvested and eaten for centuries. All the others, well, you know, they're for tourists who don't know any better! Don't become one of them, because you're a Nabhan, and therefore you should know what herbs are the strongest and best."
That is exactly what I am now trying to learn: why the herbs from some places are so potent, while others of the very same species seem so bland. So here I am, on a mountain ridge south of the border in Mexico—far from the Mediterranean home of my cousins—attempting to separate the grain from the chaff, the strongest from the more subdued. The irony is that I'm harvesting the very same aromatic oils as my uncles and cousins, but from an altogether different plant!
I look up at my lovely wife, Laurie, and the three Seri sisters with whom she and I are foraging. All four of them are bedecked in long, brilliantly colored skirts, long-sleeved blouses, and paisley bandanas—from a distance, they look like a band of Middle Eastern gypsies out on a pilgrimage. Their seasoned hands sample and select the best leaves of this oregano faster than my senses can discern such differences. One of them, Angelita Torres, proudly asserts that their oregano is not only more flavorful than most of what you find in stores, but is medicinally more powerful than other, commercially harvested oreganos from wetter reaches of Mexico. She uses it not only in food, but also as a medicine for lung and throat infections.
Like my Lebanese cousins and uncles, Angelita is absolutely sure that her harvest is the best. Call it culinary fundamentalism if you wish, but I would insist that the world is a better place for having people who have hitched their own cultural identity up to that of a memorable fragrance from a locally harvested herb. That fragrance has permeated their lives.
And yet at another level I'm a bit puzzled by the possibility that an herb might be most potent when gathered at the most arid margins of its range. Looking at the scene before me, I'm amazed that the most fragrant oregano leaves come from the bushes with the scrawniest appearance. Some of the oregano bushes are so scraggly that they can hardly be seen amid all the cholla cacti, whitethorn acacias, and ocotillos on this ridge. When one meets Mother Earth here in the Sonoran Desert, one is inclined to genuflect and greet her as "Her Dryness."
What's more, a good portion of every shrub around us looks half dead, given that this stretch of coastal desert has just endured six years of brutal drought, going months on end without any rainfall at all. Less than a month ago, a hurricane-fringe storm came in from the Gulf of California, drenching these ridges with more than two inches in a single day, breaking the drought while ushering in a spurt of growth. The oregano leaves are now scattered amid wispy branches three to five feet high, but most of the branches look like leafless, lifeless twigs, broken and discolored. The few supple branches that survived the drought have smaller, grayish-green leaves dispersed along their lengths, while a handful of shoots that recently sprouted at the base of the bush show a flush of larger, greener leaves. Tellingly, Angelita and her sisters bypass this newly emerged lushness, claiming that the bigger the leaves, the less pungent a potherb they make.
Suddenly their strategy for collecting the leaves with the most distinctive terroir begins to make intuitive sense to me. They are after the bold and bracing taste of this lava-littered, hyper-arid land, not a watered-down version of it. Older, smaller leaves glisten as though they have concentrated the aromatic oils on the leaf surface, perhaps as a means of reducing water loss from their tissues. As a drought drags on, many desert shrubs produce more of the aromatic oils such as thymol and carvacrol, which chemists collectively call phenols. As the plants get more stressed out, they produce less of other oils like geraniol—the non-phenolic compound in geraniums that releases a roselike smell. It appears that both thymol and carvacrol are not just side effects of drought stress but means for an oregano plant to better tolerate drought.
Scientists aren't exactly sure how they work, but guess that a plant’s production of these aromatic oils serves as a chemical "safety valve" that allows water-stressed leaves to disperse excess heat or energy that they cannot deal with internally. In other words, as drought proceeds and aromatic herbs have more heat stress to deal with, they dump more aromatic oils onto their leaf surfaces. This oily surface may somehow slow the flow of moisture away from their photosynthetic workings, muting the giant sucking sound of moisture being pulled out into the dry air. If the plant survives, it becomes resplendent with fragrance and the glisten of herbal oils.
That's good news for us, or at least for those of us who love particularly pungent herbs in our salad dressings, in the spice rubs we spread on our meat and fish, or in our muffins and dinner rolls. It is also good news for us in another way—the wild oreganos from Mexican deserts are, ounce for ounce, about as rich in antioxidants as a green plant can be.
There is something that fascinates me about this ecological chain that links soil moisture stress to plant tissue stress to stressed-out humans. Let me put it in the most crassly anthropocentric and teleological terms: Oregano from Mexico and thyme from the Mediterranean can somehow keep us from getting sick when we get too stressed out. How? By being rich in the very aromatic oils that not only reduce stress in the plants but reduce our stress as well.
Of course, oregano, thyme, and other aromatic herbs are not the only plants that produce more antioxidant-rich phenols under heat and drought stress. Recently, some widely heralded experiments in the semiarid stretches of California wine country have confirmed that red and purple grapes grown under moderate water stress tend to be far richer in phenols than do lavishly irrigated grapes, or even paler-skinned grape varieties subjected to the same levels of stress. Curiously, these phenols tangibly enrich the flavor intensity of wines and raisins. When ingested in substantial quantities, the same phenols keep cholesterol-rich plaque from building up in human arteries. Functioning as protective antioxidants, they absorb and "retire" free radicals, which aggravate inflammation.
"Get those radicals out of there," I growl to myself. "They want everything for free."
"Are you saying something to us, honey?" I hear my wife ask. "Or are you talking to yourself again?" I see Laurie and the Torres sisters walking toward me, their gunnysacks already filled to the brims with oregano leaves. Mine, of course, is only half full … or half empty, depending on your perspective.
After we get back in the car and drive the sisters back to their home in the Seri village, Laurie and I head down to a secluded beach to swim in the sea and cool off. I tell her what I was thinking about while up on the ridge. Trained in both pharmacology and desert ecology, she reminds me that desert plants are natural concentrators of these beneficial chemicals, since they are regularly called upon to deal with temperature and moisture stress.
I remember then that the purplish-colored fruit of prickly pear cacti from the hottest of desert habitats are also unusually high in phenols. Theirs are called quercetin and kaempferol, and contain as much as ten times the antioxidants found in green or yellow cactus fruits from higher elevations and milder climes. Quercetin, like thymol and carvacrol, is well known for its antioxidant properties.
Laurie has heard that like the oils in wild oreganos and thymes, quercetin can substantially reduce potential suffering from cancers or from attacks by bacteria or fungi. However, I remind her, it may have the goods but not the bite: Quercetin is essentially tasteless. It can't give us the kick of fragrance and flavor we can get from desert herbs like oregano.
Laurie pays that no mind; she is simply fascinated by the unusually healthful properties found in so many of the herbs that grow in arid lands, noting that deserts have given humankind far more medicines than tropical rain forests have yet to provide. But when I ask her whether she thinks that the desert itself imparts its own distinctive flavor to these herbs, she looks at me skeptically. She asks if I am trying to confuse biological science with culinary art.
In defense, I argue that I'm not trying to "confuse" them, for I truly believe that they stem from the same roots. And those roots happen to be embedded in the same soil.
I try to recall the soil that was at my feet on that ridge: shiny, almost glazed, black gravel that broke down into a grayish-white silt as fine as talcum powder. It probably had little organic matter in it, since the vegetation there was so sparse and its moisture-holding capacity would therefore be rather low. It was what we call a droughty soil, one that fails to sponge up the moisture from a sudden desert downpour and hold on to it for very long.
Nevertheless, such desert soils can still be relatively rich in potassium and phosphorous. The volcanic gravel and the basalt boulders around it accumulate heat well, so they keep the shrubs that grow on that ridge relatively protected from the catastrophic freezes that come to this country once every ten to twenty years.
What I'm getting at is this: They are the kinds of soils that only oregano (and a few kinds of cacti) can love. But the oregano bushes that grow there don't know they are lacking anything—moisture, organic matter, nitrogen, and such. They have enough stuff not merely to survive but to thrive, spewing out glistening droplets of aromatic oils on their leaves like so many miniature jewels. When the rain comes, their aromatic oils volatilize and fill the air with a fragrance as heavenly as that of any sacred incense. Rich in carvacrols and thymols, they can then spice up a feast that is fit for any king, queen, chief, or sheikh!
The taste of the wild oregano somehow echoes the taste of the desert itself, for although its soils may be poor in water and certain nutrients, they are rich in the things that build flavor and, perhaps, character. When we eat crushed leaves of oregano in a vinegar-and-oil salad dressing or a hard-crusted dinner roll, we are indeed tasting the desert's essence—the challenges of being green (or gray) in a water-starved land, and the miracle of making it work on the land's own terms.