Friday, June 30, 2017

The Many Mysterious Mints

Calling mints "mysterious" is a bit of an alliterative exaggeration. There isn't much mysterious about mints, unless it's the fact that such plain green leaves can provide such marvelous scents--scents that vary from pepperminty to perfume-y.

Peppermint plants with weeds in background
 It's not surprising that I like mints. I like fragrant plants and I like plants that are easy to grow. Mints are both. Mints are also easy to propagate, so one plant can become several via cuttings and the extras can be passed along to friends. Even if you don't take cuttings, a flourishing mint will spread and become more plants. In fact, the usual warning that comes with mint is "Plant it in a container or it will take over your garden."

That's true enough. I planted mint, both spearmint and peppermint, in a shady area by the deck where other plants didn't want to grow. While the mint beds have had their ups and downs, sometimes flourishing and sometimes not, it is certainly true that whenever they are doing well, I have to keep pulling mint out of the adjacent "lawn". Those stems move sneakily just beneath the surface, it seems, and suddenly peppermint pops up a foot away from its designated bed.
Spearmint plants with weeds including fern

The front of the house used to be an area of gardening desperation--gravelly soil on top of solid clay, shade, and lots of very hungry deer. I planted ferns and a groundcover (Lamium, which is also in the mint family though not a Mentha) and bergamot mint (a.k.a orange mint, not monarda/beebalm). As neighboring trees were taken down, providing a bit more light to our front yard, the mints flourished. (Apparently deer don't care for bergamot-flavored leaves.) In fact, they are flourishing so much that the groundcover needs to be chopped back at least a couple of times a season, and the bergamot mint is trying to spread into the "lawn".

Bergamot mint with stiltgrass in the background
Bergamot (orange) mint
I have four different mints now--peppermint, spearmint, apple mint and bergamot mint. Technically I think I bought two varieties of peppermint (chocolate mint smells like plain peppermint to me) and two varieties of spearmint that may have differed in leaf size (one was "Kentucky Colonel" and the other might just have been generic spearmint), but I can't distinguish them any more. If I could only have two kinds of mint, I would choose peppermint and spearmint. What delicious smells!

The bergamot mint has more rounded leaves than either the peppermint or spearmint. It smells... like bergamot! Most people recognize the scent as "Earl Grey tea," which is not surprising since Earl Grey is tea flavored with (actual) bergamot. Also in the front yard I have a small planting of apple mint that has survived despite being nearly choked out by stilt-grass. (Most of my garden is choked with stilt-grass this year.) Apple mint reminds me a lot of spearmint as far as its scent and color, but the leaves are slightly fuzzy. Maybe that's where the name comes from, since it doesn't smell like apples. The leaves have the pale green, fuzzy look of young apple foliage.

Flowering apple mint surrounded by stilt grass
Apple mint
There are other mints out there. I don't grow pennyroyal. I love its name, but I once had a plant and the smell reminded me very pungently of a flea collar. 

I've tried to grow Corsican mint, but I can't seem to keep it alive for long. I keep buying it, because it looks like the most adorable tiny-leafed, mossy groundcover, but with a strong minty smell. I would love to have pathways made of Corsican mint. The problem seems to be keeping it consistently moist and not letting taller plants shade it out. Maybe someday.

I saw on-line that there is a plant called "banana mint." Does it really smell like bananas? I'm going to have to order one soon and find out.

So what do I use all this minty goodness for?

Surprisingly little. When I was a kid, I would have loved to have had access to all that fresh mint for potpourri and goodness knows what other mad concoctions. I would have filled sachets with the dried leaves. I would have strewn my room with it, and maybe tried packing some in oil as an attempt at enfleurage.

As an adult, I have a few recipes that call for mint (spearmint), and a couple of times my daughter and I tried distilling peppermint oil using a pot, a small glass bowl, an upside-down lid and some ice. We did produce minty water with a slight sheen of oil on it. Mostly, though, I just rub the mint leaves as I pass by and remark on how good it smells.

I do like sweet tea with a hint of mint in it. For some reason, it's easier to make with dried peppermint. Fresh leaves seem to give a sort of green flavor to tea. It could be a matter of method--maybe fresh leaves need to steep in much cooler water. Spearmint also adds a nice hint of mint.

Methods of making sweet iced tea vary and people can be quite passionate about their own method. Here's mine, for tea with a hint of mint.

Sweet Tea with a Hint of Mint

Put 4 cups of boiling water in a glass measuring cup with 2 iced tea bags (or 4 regular size) and steep for five minutes. Add a peppermint tea bag for the last minute, or steep longer for more flavor. 
 Mix in sugar (between 1/2 cup and 1 cup, depending on preferred sweetness) while tea is hot. Fill a 2-quart plastic pitcher more than halfway with (fresh) ice cubes. Pour sweetened tea over ice and stir well. Add more ice if necessary to bring to 2 quarts. Serve.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Facts vs. Feelings--an overdose of human interest stories?

The other day my husband told me that he was listening to gaming podcasts on his way to work instead of National Public Radio. NPR had been deluging him with human interest stories on Syrian refugees and other people in desperate circumstances. The constant tug at the heartstrings was making his morning drive a depressing and exhausting start to the day.    

I've heard that listening to stories about other people is a good way to develop the ability to empathize, to see the world through someone else's eyes. I firmly believe this. Stories also give us a way to peek into other cultures and other living conditions. We need these stories. And some of these stories, certainly, should be about refugees. About migrant workers. And about children trying to survive in lands controlled by warlords.

But it is also true that one can get too much. Being bombarded by intense depictions of all the terrible things going on in the world can result in a sense of helplessness. Feeling helpless leads to paralysis, not action.

Obviously it is far better to be a commuter listening to a heart-rending story about a Syrian refugee, and feeling depressed about it, than it is to be the Syrian refugee. I don't want to lose sight of that. But sympathetic suffering is not in itself an improvement in the world. It is good when it leads to reducing others' suffering. No doubt the reporters on NPR hope their stories will inspire people to act. Probably they do, sometimes.

But compassion and sympathy are not sufficient for right action.

I don't listen to NPR (or any radio, really) but there is something I have noticed both in Facebook posts and, I think, in newspaper editorials. There is a lot of appeal to emotion.  For example, I see a lot of the stories about undocumented/illegal immigrants that are focused on good people in untenable situations. I hear, for instance, about the children of such immigrants who fear being sent back to a country they have never known. I hear about people who have been valued contributors to their community for many years, but who could lose everything they have worked to build.

I don't hear much about how we can create a workable, fair, compassionate and enforceable immigration policy so that we can avoid such situations in the first place. I don't hear much about it from the left, and I don't hear much about it from the right either. The appeals from the right seem to be equally emotional stories about hard working men and women (especially men) who can't find jobs because the work has been taken by undocumented/illegal workers. (Exactly what jobs these are is a bit vague--presumably not the jobs that went overseas or that became obsolete, since they couldn't have taken those jobs.)

Having a strong desire to improve things is not enough. Coming up with good policies requires knowledge of facts and context. Knowing which policies to support requires the same. Heart-stirring stories are good (in moderation.) Thoughtful discussions of cause-and-effect, historical background, and basic principles are also important.

If people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, then possibly I shouldn't be posting this. My knowledge of practical details on most of these subjects is embarrassingly low. Then again, the fact that I'm falling short doesn't mean that you shouldn't try.
So, don't get overwhelmed by the vastness of human need. Just pick your patch and dive in. That's what I'm telling myself, anyway.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why I Drink So Much Tea

I drink rather a lot of tea. I start the day with a cup of tea, and then maybe another, probably one around lunch time, and when four o’clock slips around, well… that’s tea time, isn’t it? I’m talking about black tea, by the way, with milk and sugar. I’ve never really gotten to like green tea, and I only occasionally drink herbal “tea” such as peppermint. And while I’ve come to like the sweet iced tea that is simply called “tea” in my now-home state, that’s not the version of tea I’m discussing here.

I haven’t always drunk so much tea. In high school I had some sort of orange-spice herbal tea, and I don’t remember drinking much tea at all in college. Maybe the rise of the coffee shop, with its pastries and convenient tables for studying, had something to do with it. Or maybe it was something else. At any rate, I believe it was an acquired taste. I really like the flavor of a good cup of tea, and yet tea isn’t delicious the way chocolate is, or ripe strawberries. So why do I drink so much of it?

I’m convinced that part of what makes tea so appealing is its associations, both cultural and personal. Consider the contexts in which cups of tea make their appearance in books and pictures. Tea and books. Tea and flowers. Tea and chocolates. Tea served in beautiful china cups off a tray, perhaps in a garden. Tea in the company of friends. Tea accompanying a notebook and pen. Tea-time as a moment of peace and quiet in the day. It’s hardly surprising that I like the idea of tea.

Teapot and cup in Wedgwood pale green china
A lovely cup of tea

There are personal associations, too. When I was small and had a cold, my mom would settle me on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of tea to chase away the sore throat or sniffles. I still believe in drinking lots of hot tea when I have a cold, though in the interests of not overdoing the caffeine, I also drink hot water with lemon, and maybe peppermint with honey. 

Also, as a grown-up going home for the holidays, I really liked tea-time. As four o’clock neared, someone would suggest putting the kettle on, and whoever was home at the time would gather at the table to eat cookies or panettone while talking about whatever came to mind. Tea with company, tea with cookies, tea with pretty cups.

And there are so many really, really lovely teacups out there!

And now, the reality of tea. The reality is that I rarely use my good china, though I do have some nice mugs in frequent use. The reality is that sometimes I make myself a cup of tea and take sips of it while trying to simultaneously empty the dishwasher and feed the cats. The reality is that any tea purchased at an airport and served in a paper cup is almost always lousy (but I drink it anyway.) The reality is that I have a wonderful husband and daughter, but they just don’t care for hot tea, so I’d be better off filling my teapots with iced lemonade if I want a cozy family gathering. 

Mug of tea at a cluttered computer desk
The reality of tea

Why do I drink so much tea? Because I live in hope—hope that the hot liquid will magically create peace, leisure, beauty, flowers, chocolates, and company, even though it is just a cup of water with dead leaves in it. I guess that’s not a bad thing, but maybe this summer I could try serving lemonade on the porch in my good china.