Cultivators of kitchen gardens turn their thoughts to herbs in April.
The same was true for Eliza Wornall, wife of prosperous frontier farmer John Wornall whose farm once overlooked the western frontier and now stands witness to over 150 years of Kansas City history.
Did the sage survive the winter? Should the chives be divided this spring?
Eliza would have to decide which plants were useful not only for summer cooking, but for the autumn harvest and setting up the family’s winter food stores.
Like the typical 1800s housewife, Eliza was responsible for everything associated with the kitchen. If a family had household help it was most often a cook, but the mistress directed all work and needed full knowledge of food preparation and preservation techniques.
Herbs were critical for culinary use and were also popular for their folkloric medicinal qualities, so each family had herbs in the kitchen garden — and the garden was among the first things planted on a new homestead.
Sage was essential for seasoning sausages made from pork, locally the most commonly consumed meat since pigs fattened more quickly than cattle and did not require large grasslands for grazing.
Pungent sage also paired well with cornmeal that was used far more frequently than costlier flour. Sage tea was said to comfort sore throats and believed to hold overall rejuvenating powers.
Dill was a staple for pickling large quantities of vegetables including cucumbers and beans harvested in peak summer months. Dill seeds, as well as those of coriander and caraway, were employed for various ailments ranging from coughs and colic to hiccups, nausea and bad breath.
Leaves of parsley appeared in salads and stews much like today, but all parts of the plant were leveraged historically for medicinal use.
A parsley-seed rinse was recommended to remove hair lice, a poultice of crushed parsley leaves would be applied to sooth insect bites and dried parsley root tea would be brewed and taken as a diuretic.
Flowering herbs would yield their blossoms for both consumption and topical use.
Yellow-orange safflowers would give dishes a golden hue at substantially less cost — but with significantly less flavor — than saffron.
Delicate purple-blue borage flowers would be coated in egg white and dusted in sugar then dried into candy confections.
Yellow St. John’s wort flowers were soaked in alcohol or vegetable oil, making a lotion to smooth rough skin or comfort minor sores.
Undoubtedly Mrs. Wornall used some of the bleak winter months to plan her spring plantings for the family farm.
Eventually the first green chives would push their way through the soil and, just like today’s gardeners, Eliza would welcome their presence like the first day of spring.
Visitors are invited to learn more about period herb plantings and their use at the 26th Annual Herb and Wildflower Sale from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 26 at the John Wornall House Museum, 6115 Wornall Road.
This year the house kitchen will be open for conversation about the culinary and medicinal herbs. Admission is free.
Attend the Herb Cocktail Partyfeaturing chef Shannon “FireBug” Kimball from 5 to 8 p.m. April 24 at The Alexander Majors House Barn, 8201 State Line Road. Tickets are $35 per person online by clicking here
or by calling 816-444-1858.
Julienne Gehrer is a writer, period cook and author of “In Season: Cooking Fresh from the Kansas City Farmers’ Market” available at ashgrovepress.com. Julienne also leads the Kansas City region of The Jane Austen Society of North America and is writing a book about foods associated with the author’s life and works. Follow her culinary journey at diningwithjaneausten.org.