Rosemary in the January Garden

rosemaryIt was quiet and dark as I crept from bed, igniting light in the sleeping kitchen. I chopped potatoes and onion, settled beans and barley in water to soften. I had every single ingredient for the Sabbath stew, cholent, my son had requested. Every ingredient except one.


None dried in careful little bottles in the spice cabinet. None fresh in the produce drawer.

This one herb was the entire flavor difference in this favorite Jewish dish, at least the one my children prefer. Rosemary alone set it apart from all the other bubbling stews percolating in crockpots across Oak Park and Southfield and around the world. The one they like best, of course, has different flavor, and nuance.

But it was not quite 6 o’clock in the morning. No store would be open so early, and there was no time in the day to find one, anyway.

02apr_07And then it occurred to me. The summer herb pots on the patio were covered in snow and frost except for one: rosemary.

These latent but fragrant stalks stood tall through wind and rain, sun and sleet. Even in yesterday’s snow storm, blanketing Detroit in several inches of sparkling snow, the rosemary stood.

You could say we were too lazy to remember to empty the pots and put them away in the garage for winter.

Or you could say that it was divine providence that the one ingredient that would make my children feel nourished and whole, consistent between their dad’s house and mine, stood ready for the picking, even in the dark cold morning of winter.

I opened the door and shuffled just a foot or two in the pre-dawn snow and pulled several little rosemary leaves into my palms. Immediately, the oil of their essence fragranced my skin.

I smiled.

The meat and potatoes stew known as cholent that many Jews eat on the Sabbath.
The meat and potatoes stew known as cholent that many Jews eat on the Sabbath.

There are familiar tastes and scents which bring you back to a time when all was good, all was calm. This rosemary means many things to many people, but to me it reminded of a time of hope and optimism, when I packed in for the weekly Sabbath and believed that observance led to meaning.

I do still believe that, but I realize now, without my rosy glasses, that it’s not always true. I see the nuance in ritual observance, and I love the ones we claim as our own.

This flavor for my children is like the dill my grandmother put in her chicken soup. Even today, 14 months after her passing, when I make chicken soup, I add her dill, so the flavors of my childhood and my heritage are present with us, alongside her memory.

At sundown we light candles to usher in the magical separation between mundane and holy.
At sundown we light candles to usher in the magical separation between mundane and holy.

And so the stew was saved, with the latent rosemary from my winter garden. The scent and flavor still ring true. Floating in the crockpot, enrapturing the meat and potatoes, my house right this moment smells reassuring and beautiful like the Sabbath to come this night.

No doubt, the taste will be other-worldly when we dig in tomorrow. For it isn’t the actual flavors or foods that we eat to bring meaning. It is the experience mingled with memory that elevates every bite, the sense of having been here before and knowing confidently we will return to this moment again, with new eyes, and open hearts.

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