It's the height of summer here in Baltimore, the weeds have grown thick, the tomato vines are heavy with fruit, and the mint desperately needs thinning. As anyone who has grown it knows, mint is an assertive, determined plant, willing and able to take over your entire yard if you don't keep it in check. If there were a pervasive plant list, mint would surely be there. What other herb is so versatile and widely used, both as a flavoring and a remedy? It's in everything from chewing gums, antacids, and toothpaste to candy canes, ice cream, and Junior Mints. Mint also flavors tabbouleh, raitas, and chutneys as well as some of our favorite cocktails—juleps, mojitos, and stingers.
The story of mint starts in the Mediterranean, where the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans variously used mint as a breath freshener, health tonic, sign of hospitality, or for aroma therapy or stimulating headwear (a crown of mint to "exhilarate the mind," said Pliny the Elder).
When the Roman Empire expanded north and west, mint went with it. As a result, we thank the Brits for marrying lamb and mint. "The smell of mint does stir up the minde and the taste to a greedy desire of meat," said the English botanist John Gerard (c. 1545–1612). Not only did mint's bouquet whet the appetite, but its digestive properties aided a stomach confronted with the fatty, tough meat of the Middle Ages.
The English, in turn, took mint to North America, where no colonial kitchen garden was without it. Steeping mint leaves in hot water, settlers drank this tea to combat nausea, headaches, and heartburn, and to induce sweating. They also realized mint's ability to ward off mosquitoes and rodents.
In historic American cookbooks, recipes abound for preparations of mint with lamb or peas. "Cooking from Old Creole Days," a 1904 book, contains a smattering of recipes for mint vinegars ("a very agreeable addition to cold meat, soups, sauces..."), desserts (i.e. mint sherbet made of brandy, sherry, and egg whites), and some curious soups. One recipe, "Soup Without Meat," directs the cook to "stew" in butter cucumbers, lettuce, mint, and other aromatics before adding to a boiling pot of peas. The 1864 book "Complete Cook" describes "a cheap soup" that is a concoction of lean beef, various vegetables, and a red herring to which the cook adds spinach, boiled celery, fried bread, and dried mint just before serving.
Recipes featuring mint beverages, both alcoholic and not, were also fairly common in older cookbooks, with mint making a cameo appearance mostly in punches and "claret cups." Combined with spirits, authors extolled the herb's medicinal qualities. In Maude Ada Bomberger's 1907 "Colonial Recipes from Old Virginia and Maryland Manors with Numerous Legends and Traditions Interwoven," Mrs. John Ridgeley, mistress of Towson's Hampton Mansion, shares her recipe for mint brandy. "This is a specific for some forms of bowel trouble," she writes, directing readers to "[g]ather the mint at a season when the sun is hot—say July."
Bomberger's book takes great delight in mint, devoting an entire chapter, two celebratory poems, and some rapturous declarations to the topic. Introducing the chapter, Bomberger quotes a Dr. van Dyck who says, "When its perfume rises the shrines of the past are unveiled and reminiscence begins."
Clearly moved, she adds, "It truly is an echoing symphony from year to year and from age to age."
But my favorite bit from this book is from a mint julep recipe that begins with this simple instruction: "Gather the mint when the dew is on it."
We may not always manage to gather our mint while it still glistens with dewdrops, but surely we can squeeze some more of this season's particular pleasures out of these last weeks. Whether you enjoy a tall icy glass of tea sporting a sprig of mint or a frosty, mint-flecked cocktail, seize the moment while "the dew is on it." Soon enough, the bees will cease to hover among the herb's flowers and the heat of the day will no longer carry the fragrance from the mint patch.
Recipe: Spicy Mint Marinade and Sauce
The following recipe is an excellent marinade and/or sauce for any type of meat, seafood, or vegetable cooked on the grill.
1/4 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
4 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice
1 tablespoon lemon or lime zest
2 large garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne
2 cups packed mint leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
Puree all ingredients in a blender until emulsified.
Use half to marinate 1-2 pounds of meat, seafood or vegetables (seafood for no more than thirty minutes, meat and vegetables up to four hours.) Use the remaining half as an accompanying sauce.