When “Garbled” Is Good

I frequently garble phone messages, phone numbers, combination locks, simple instructions, passwords and punchlines, but there is one time when garbling is a good thing — when you’re handling herbs.

Usually, to garble something means to distort it profoundly, so that it loses its true meaning.  But in herbalism, the verb means almost exactly the opposite.  “Garbling” an herb means to strip it of everything but its useful essence: to remove any extra twigs or stems, dirt, bugs, or deteriorated leaves, and carefully retain everything good and graceful about the plant.

A small cut of golden lemon thyme, garbled after drying.

A few days ago, a friend delivered unto me a pretty amazing quantity of sweet marjoram from her garden.  She wasn’t sure what it was, but I’ve been growing it for years and I knew the look on that plant’s face when she dropped the pile on my counter.  Her reports of the plant’s behavior confirmed the identification.  It can’t be killed, she said.  I cut it down to nothing and it’s still back.  I think it’s hostile.  Should I call somebody about this.

No no, I said, I got this one.  I was feeling like I’d hit the lottery, because marjoram is an incredibly underrated herb.  While we tend to limit our herbal seasonings to basil, oregano, and maybe a little bit of thyme when we’re feeling all foodie (rosemary scares people), marjoram provides an entirely new level of herbal flavor.  Imagine a combination of flowery thyme, bitter oregano, and maybe a tiny resinous zap of rosemary all rolled into one.  It’s an herb that’s regarded by many as being absolutely necessary to make the iconic kielbasa biala surowa, or fresh Polish white sausage, and that adds an incredibly complex and memorable touch to vinaigrettes, marinades, light tomato sauces, and fresh salads. Finally, this amazing gift comes from a plant that refuses to die even under the most adverse circumstances, such as a gardener that’s giving it the hairy eyeball every day.

It’s an indication of how underrated this herb really is that the only picture I have of it is one from two years ago.

The marjoram (top back) knows that I was really only taking a picture of the tarragon and thymes.

But I’ve finally learned to appreciate the oddballs among us, and when that pile of marjoram hit the deck I was ready to go.  A quick cleaning swish and then it was stacked in the dehydrator, which to me (see the earlier Strange Herbs post) is the best way to preserve herbs.  In the dehydrator, a few hours at exactly 95 degrees and the fan’s gentle breeze keeps much of the herb’s color and essential oils in the leaves, without the dust, burning, or contaminant problems that can come from air or oven drying.

Out of the dehydrator. There are two more frames beneath.

Once it’s out of the dryer, then the garbling process begins. You need to get the leaves off the stems and twigs, choosing which to keep and which to discard, while keeping them as whole as possible.  (For dried herbs, keeping the leaves whole is important — you crush them when you use them, and not before.  This way you avoid the tasteless dust frequently sold as herbs in grocery stores).   You use your hands in a very gentle way, rubbing your fingers along the dried stems to release the leaves while trying to preserve them intact.  It is a peaceful and almost meditative process, because you remain engaged in what you are doing while at the same time your mind roams around in deep and profound places.  I imagine for some people it would be horrifically boring.  I’m not admitting to anything here, but music helps.

Garbling herb is well performed in solitude, where it provides a prime opportunity to simultaneously garble one’s attitude and beliefs about life.  — James Green, “The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook,” pp. 62-63 (Berkeley: Crossing Press 2000)*


From the three dried frames of my friend’s generous gift, I ended up with enough marjoram to stock the cabinet for sausages and sauces and marinades for the year.  A good day.

More than enough.

*Endnote:  This sentence is a lovely example of a syllepsis, a language construction where a word (usually a verb) has multiple meanings when it is applied to the words that it governs in a sentence.  “He lost his coat and his temper.” There is apparently a fight to the death among grammarians as to whether it is distinct from, or simply a form of, something deeply incomprehensible called a zeugma.