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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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05.21.07

Mint: The World’s Herb

Food History


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As a kid, I loved Greek and Roman mythology. Lots of imagination, cool creatures (loved Pegasus), epic scale, adventure. I read everything I could get my hands on. I’m glad I did, because knowing mythology helps you understand about a third of what’s said in literature, and even gives you a leg up on language (procrustean, Herculean, harpy, and so on). But looking back, I am becoming increasingly aware of the fact that there are not a lot of cheerful myths. It’s pretty much an unbroken string of disappointments, deaths, kidnapping, suicide, human sacrifice, warfare, infidelity, cannibalism, evil monsters, and bloodshed. Even great heroes like Hercules die horribly. There are not a lot of happy endings.

Take for example Persephone. Most of us know the Greek myth about Persephone being abducted by Hades, her mom Demeter causes the crops to fail, Zeus says Persephone can go home if she hasn’t eaten anything, but she’d eaten six pomegranate seeds (or something else, depending on the version of the story), so now we get winter, because Persephone has to spend half the year with Hades in the Underworld. Not cheerful, but at least no deaths yet. But the story doesn’t end there. Persephone may not have loved the arrangement with Hades, but that didn’t keep her from being possessive. After all, she was now Queen of the Underworld. So when she caught Hades with a lovely naiad named Minthe (or Menthe), Persephone went ballistic, throwing Minthe to the ground and stomping her to death—though not truly to death, because at some point in the process, the nymph was transformed into an herb that released a lovely fragrance each time the goddess stomped or kicked. And that, the Greeks once told us, is how we got mint. Charming.

In keeping with the original stomping concept, creeping mint varieties have long been planted as ground cover—and were particularly popular as such during the Elizabethan era—precisely because walking on mint does, as Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “perfume the air most delightfully.” (It didn’t hurt that mint also seemed to repel insects.)

Mint comes from a big family: Labiatae, with more than 2000 species, including peppermint, spearmint, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and catnip. Of course, when we talk about mint in cooking, we are talking about only one genus of this family, Mentha. Native to Europe, Asia, and Australia, and naturalized pretty much everywhere else that is temperate or subtropical, the Mentha genus has somewhere between 25 and 40 species, the best known of which today are peppermint and spearmint. These are not the only true mints, but they are the only ones of significant commercial importance.

Spearmint, also known as garden mint, is thought to be among the oldest of all the mints. The most common mint in temperate climates is water mint. It is believed that peppermint is likely a cross between the lovely, sweet spearmint and the strong, bitter water mint. (“Likely a cross” because mint hybridizes easily, and it’s not always easy to tell who the parents are.) Peppermint is actually a newcomer, first discovered in England in 1696.

The mint known as pennyroyal was popular with the Greeks. The disciples of Bacchus thought that a wreath of pennyroyal worn on the head would dispel drunkenness—a belief that actually survived many centuries, as reflected by the notation in John Gerard’s 1597 book on herbs that “a garland of pennie-royal made and worn about the head is of great force against the swimming in the head, and the paines and giddiness thereof.”

Greeks and Romans thought that the smell of mint improved the appetite, and they often rubbed their tables with mint before dinner parties. The Romans brought mint and mint sauce to Britain, and their opinion regarding appetite and mint survived there for centuries. (Gerard again: “The smell of mint does stir up the minde and the taste to a greedy desire of meat.”)

Pliny, among Rome’s best-known historians, thought that students should wear mint wreaths, as he felt certain the fragrance would “exhilarate their minds.” “The very smell of it reanimates the spirit,” Pliny wrote, and modern aromatherapists agree with him. The smell of mint does appear to have a reviving, energizing quality.

Mint was brought to the Americas early on, arriving with the Mayflower Pilgrims, who planted it primarily for medicinal purposes. Mint soon spread and became naturalized throughout North America. In time, mint became a popular flavoring for homemade candy, and mint was being commercially cultivated in Massachusetts by the late 1790s. Growing mint became increasingly lucrative. In the mid-1800s, Hiram G. Hotchkiss of Lyons, New York, and A. M. Todd of Michigan, were known in their respective states as “Peppermint Kings.” (And the location of Todd’s plantation was appropriately named Mentha, Michigan.) New mint hybrids were developed that would grow in less desirable places, and the method of distilling spearmint and peppermint oils was refined.

The skyrocketing popularity of mint flavoring was an international phenomenon. In 1877, William Colgate introduced mint-flavored toothpaste. By the late 1800s, the “curiously strong” mint flavor of Altoids was settling stomachs in London. In 1907, William Wrigley, Jr., created spearmint chewing gum, adding mint extract to the chicle-based gum invented in the late 1800s by Thomas Adams. In 1912, Clarence Crane introduced mint candies called Lifesavers, named for their shape. By 1914, when Wrigley created Doublemint, he was the leading manufacturer of chewing gum in the U.S. In 1927, Austrian Edward Hass invented a new peppermint candy called PEZ. The term PEZ comes from the German word for peppermint, pfefferminz. (And here PEZ always seemed so all-American—must have been the Popeye dispenser.) World War II spread American candies and chewing gum around the world, creating an even bigger demand for mint flavoring. Today, peppermint is the best-selling flavor among non-chocolate hard candies.

Of course, mint is not just for medicine or candy. It is an important culinary herb. In northern Europe, mint traditionally accompanies lamb, duck, and young vegetables. In the Middle East, it is mixed into yogurt and cooked with pulses. In India, mint appears in spiced dishes and chutneys. In Southeast Asia, it pops up in salads. And it is a key ingredient in myriad beverages, from the mint julep of the southern U.S. to the mojito of Cuba to the mint tea that is ubiquitous in the hot climates across North Africa and into the warmer regions of western Asia.

Because mint hybridizes easily, it is recommended that you plant cuttings rather than seeds, to be sure you get what you want. If you do grow your own mint, be advised that it is invasive, so it is wise to grow it in a pot or, if you want to grow it in a garden, surround it with a submerged barrier, such as a bottomless bucket. When I was growing up, we used to grow mint (spearmint and pineapple mint) in an unpaved corner of our patio, far from the rest of the garden, and we were constantly pulling up sprouts that emerged between the flagstones. It really wants to spread.

There are other mints, such as apple mint, bergamot mint, pineapple mint, and citrus mint. These have more subtle flavors. They remain popular among gardeners and gourmets, but the delicacy of their flavors makes them less reliable in the marketplace. But whatever the variety or species, worldwide, mint is the most widely used of all aromatic herbs.

One Comment on "Mint: The World’s Herb"

Barry Strum

Had no idea that mint was the “easy” herb. Well, you do what you have to do for the attention……

Basil is the Joseph of herbs…….if it’s not careful, it’ll wind up in a ditch by the side of the road, but with its luck, it’ll be the next “ramp”…….hunted by legions of yuppies while Mario pours another glass from his $85 Barolo bottle.

Let us not forget artsy Cilantro…….the serious herb……..she puts you off at first, but then seduces you with her aroma and fresh taste. The two of you commune while the hunters are trolling the highways, fields, and culverts for ramps and Basil.



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