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Rosemary for remembrance

(article, Liz Biro)

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Fifteen years ago, I moved into a house built on a dusty old tobacco field, and I needed something — anything — that would grow in my barren backyard. At a plant sale, I noticed a fat little shrub thriving in a parched corner. I rubbed a branch, and it smelled like pine. When I walked over to where the potted herbs were being sold, I noticed that the one named "rosemary" had the same leaves and scent. So I bought a sprig.

I planted it in my bone-dry back yard and forgot about it. I didn’t water it, fertilize it, or talk to it. I mostly avoided it, especially in the kitchen. Rosemary was not popular with American cooks at the time, and references I read warned of its pungent piney flavor.

Despite my disinterest, the herb grew quickly, and to enormous size. Once, I asked a gardener friend to cut a few branches for a holiday table decoration. She came back to the house empty-handed, claiming she couldn’t find the bush. It turned out she'd been looking for the ground-crawler she was accustomed to seeing, not the huge shrub that my rosemary was becoming.  

As the plant mushroomed, so did my interest in rosemary. I bought a book about the herb and relished an old English folk saying I found inside: “Where rosemary flourishes, a woman rules.” Romans considered rosemary a symbol of love and remembrance, so it became the gift I gave brides and the comfort I offered the bereaved. I made a rosemary wreath and hung it on the front door the day after my own father died.

[%image tallrosemary float=left size=large caption="It all started with a sprig."]

When I opened a catering business, I used my rosemary to garnish platters. In part, the herb was key to my success. People were enraptured by the abundance of rosemary that encircled roasts and cold cuts, rose from bread baskets, or perfumed piles of fresh orange slices. Christmas displays were the most stunning, with fresh rosemary massed around ruby pomegranate halves. Sometimes I'd catch party guests stealing the garnish. 

They didn’t find rosemary too “piney,” and neither did I.

One day, while researching inexpensive beef cuts for budget-minded clients, I found an old recipe for rosemary-roasted eye of round. The meat was to be rubbed with dried rosemary and garlic powder; instead, I crusted it with lots of chopped fresh rosemary and garlic. Cooked rare, chilled, and thinly sliced, the eye of round was so delicious that well-off clients began to request it instead of tenderloin.

I discovered a few rosemary sprigs went a long way; a half-teaspoon of finely chopped rosemary perfectly seasoned a cup of mayonnaise to serve with meats. A couple of teaspoons kneaded into a batch of bread dough produced an irresistible loaf. I roasted sweet potatoes with olive oil, chopped garlic, and a few rosemary leaves. A recipe for rosemary-apple jelly inspired me to add a little minced rosemary to apple-cake batter. 

If I cut too much rosemary, it didn’t matter. I could use the extra for garnishes or put it in a vase with water; within days, it would root. As a result, I planted more rosemary. Cuttings easily took in terracotta pots and, once established, survived strings of hot, humid days in the sun, with no water.

I finally had a plant that could live in my arid backyard, and it came with wonderful benefits. Lucky me.

Years after the rosemary plants took hold, I traveled with my mother and her brother to their native Italy. I had found Italian recipes calling for rosemary, but I had never told Mom about my bush because she never used or mentioned rosemary. 

The trip to Italy was her first back in 45 years, and my first ever. We rented a car, and I drove the three of us to my grandmother’s mountaintop hometown, Buccino. With only a few miles to go, my uncle started telling stories about the town; he and my mother had spent part of their youth there. 


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“I’m gonna tell you, now, the women rule that town,” he said, and my mother nodded her head knowingly. As I slowly maneuvered up the narrow, winding road to Buccino, their chattering grew more intense. 

I, however, was rendered speechless. All along the roadside grew massive, fragrant rosemary bushes.
p(bio). Liz Biro writes about food from Hubert, North Carolina.

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tallrosemary, l