Week 1. National Simplify Your Life Week (10 good ideas! We love “If you don’t use it, lose it.”)
August 6: The Shakers (America’s premier herbalists) arrived in New York Harbor on this day in 1774, on a ship called Mariah.
August 10: Chicago IL was incorporated as a village on this day in 1833, with a population of 200.
Week 2. National Smile Week (Check out these family craft suggestions).
August 15: Today is the birthday of Julia Child (1912-2004), also known as Our Lady of the Ladle, who introduced Americans to the art of French cuisine.
August 17: National Vanilla Custard Day.
Week 3. Friendship Week (Rosemary is the friendship herb).
August 19: National Potato Day
Week 4. Be Kind to Humankind Week.
August 28: Pepsi-Cola (originally an herbal drink to treat indigestion) got its name on this day in 1898.
August 29: Just what we need! National More Herbs Less Salt Day.
You can begin harvesting your herbs for daily use when the plant has enough foliage to ensure continued growth. Successive harvests throughout the season encourage bushy plants with stronger leaf growth, so plan to cut back your plants and preserve your harvest frequently.
Harvest in the morning, after the dew dries but before the temperature climbs, to ensure that you’ve gathered the plant when its essential oils are strongest. Here are a few things to remember:
- Herbs are at their best when they’re fresh-picked. For daily use, gather just what you need. Wrap in a damp paper towel and place in a tightly-closed plastic bag in the refrigerator.
- Long-stemmed herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano, savory, dill, fennel) can be kept on the kitchen counter for a few days. Strip lower leaves for immediate use and put the stems in a narrow-necked vase filled with water, out of the sun.
- Herbs produce their most intense flavor after the flower buds appear but before they open. Harvest at this time for most uses. Plants such as basil and oregano may still be suitable for vinegars after they’ve bloomed, however.
Here is a guide to help you plan your herbal harvest.
- Gather annual herbs until frost, making as many successive harvests as possible without damaging the plant. Don’t cut too near the ground, for lower foliage is necessary for strong, continuing growth. At the end of the season, harvest the entire plant.
- Gather perennial herbs until about one month before the frost date. Late pruning encourages tender growth that may be killed by the frost, and plants need the regrowth to see them through the winter.
- Gather flowering perennial herbs (tarragon or lavender) in early summer, then cut the plants to half their height to encourage fall flowering.
- Collect herb seeds (mustard, fennel) as the seed pods darken and dry, but before they burst. Secure a paper bag over the seed head to complete ripening, then cut the stem and hang the bag for further drying.
- Dig herb roots (chicory, ginseng, goldenseal, horseradish) after the foliage fades. Dig, wash off the dirt, dry thoroughly on a screen, store in paper bags.
- Okay, so what’s the connection between Chicago and herbs? Well, we’re sure that you know that the onion is an herb. (You didn’t? Well, it’s time you found out! Listen to Susan’s podcast, “The Magical, Mystical, Magnetic Onion,” and she’ll tell you all about it.) But we’ll bet that you didn’t know that the place-name “Chicago” means “onion field.” The word was first recorded in a 1688 French document, where it appears as Chigagou, an Algonquian word. The document explains that wild onions and garlic grew profusely in the area. And if you’d like to try something a little different with your onions, marry them with mint, in this intriguing recipe: Roasted Sweet Onions with Mint.
- Celebrate St. Julia’s Day by reading her book, My Life in France. You might also enjoy the memoir Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell, who cooked all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking—and lived to blog about it! And then of course the blog became a book (naturally) and the book became a film, starring Meryl Streep as the irrepressible Lady of the Ladle. Cooking doesn’t get any better than this.
- Observe Vanilla Custard Day by getting better acquainted with vanilla, perhaps the best-loved flavoring of all time. Vanilla pods are the fruit of the vanilla planifolia, the only orchid to produce an edible substance—and after saffron, the second most expensive herb to grow. Go here for an overview. And if you haven’t read it yet, now is a great time to indulge in A Plain Vanilla Murder, China’s 27th mystery.For a classic plain-vanilla baked custard recipe, try this one. Top with fresh strawberries or peaches for an elegant dessert.
- If you’d rather make your vanilla custard with condensed/evaporated milk, here’s how. And while you’re at it, you might want to know how Gail Borden came to develop canned condensed (or evaporated) milk and why it was so important at the time—a bit of food history that you probably didn’t learn in school. (The Herbed Mustard Sauce recipe on that page is terrific. No fresh tarragon? Try thyme, parsley, dill.) What’s the difference between condensed or evaporated and sweetened condensed milk? Here’s the low-down.
- On Potato Day, read Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, by Dick Burhans. The story of how the pedestrian potato (once considered medicinal) was transformed into America’s favorite snack food—and the dark side of that picture. Informative, fun.
- Learn the history of one of the most famous soft drinks of all time. Pharmacist Caleb Bradham brewed up a drink he called “Brad’s Drink,” designed to ease indigestion and boost energy. It was concocted of carbonated water, sugar, vanilla, “rare oils,” and high-caffeine kola nuts. He didn’t think his name did much to sell his product, so on August 28, 1898, he gave it a catchy new name: “Pepsi-Cola.” A main ingredient of modern Pepsi: high-fructose corn syrup.
- Find out what Susan is up to during these hot summer weeks by visiting her blog, Lifescapes. There’s always something interesting going on in the Texas Hill Country. She also has a new blog, BookScapes, where she’ll be posting reviews of books she’s read and notes on writing/publishing.