The ancients were enamored with sage. So am I. The ancients believed that sage could confer immortality. What I believe: who knows? I eat the stuff, and I’m still knocking around.
“Why,” demanded one Latin commentator, “should a man die who grows sage in his garden?”
Among the English, it is believed that the plant’s immortalist properties are most pronounced in May:
He who would live for aye
Must eat Sage in the month of May.
There are some May days left here. So get to nibbling.
Or maybe it’s okay to wait until next month. For over there in Provence, says Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, folks aver “[i]t should be picked on the dawn of Midsummer Day when the first ray of sunlight strikes the highest mountain.”
Provencal proverb: “He who has sage in his garden needs no doctor.”
Sage is one of those plants that just feels old. Even when a plant is young, it looks and smells and tastes settled and aged and wise. Rub it between your fingers and you can sense from whence spring the legends. Compare it with, say, Hall’s honeysuckle, which, no matter how massive it gets—used by pioneers out here to cover whole hillsides—and how large and gnarled and twisted and woody its trunk, in its leaves and its buds and its abundance it rings forever fresh and springy and new.
Sage is native to the Mediterranean, but it is embraced wherever it is introduced. When it reached the Chinese in the 18th Century, it was soon so valued that a crate of sage would be exchanged for two crates of the finest tea. The Chinese have diligently pursued immortalist decoctions for four millennia, and so in China too it was decided that infusions of sage leaves would make a person immune from “the ill effects of old age,” enable one to enjoy “full muscular strength, brightness of vision, and youthful appearance all of his days.”
John Evelyn in 1699 firmly pronounced that sage “[t]is a plant endued with so many wonderful properties, that the assiduous use of it is said to render man immortal.”
And if someone around you does happen to die, it is said that “for that most grievous of maladies, the sorrow caused by the death of a loved one, sage [i]s a comforting cure.”
Sage is said to strengthen the brain, aid in memory, eliminate nervous disorders, detoxify the liver and kidneys, remove stones from the gallbladder, ease coughs and colds and asthma, heal infections of the mouth and throat, banish epilepsy, serve as an antidote to “the bitings of serpents,” cure heart trouble, assist in pregnancy, and banish sunburn, worms, gray hair, and stained teeth. It’s also an insect repellent, that will repel wee unwanted beasties out and about in the garden. On the other hand, it attracts bees—Good People.
There are many ways to get this wonderment into your body. The Spanish and the people of Provence and Languedoc use it to flavor fatty dishes, particularly pork, which, so sayeth Toussaint-Samat, “is more easily digested accompanied by sage.” The English stuff sage into sausages and use it to flavor cheeses. People use it with poultry and veal and quail, and drink it in tea. In the month of May, I sprinkle a bit in everything I happen to eat.
I have seen with my own eyes sage restore life to a person. Worked like a mule into a state of collapse, then beset by waves of viral marauders. All my other food cures had failed. So I brewed some l’aigo bouido sauvo la vido, or “the life-saving boiling water.” Which is peeled cloves from an entire head of garlic, 4 sprigs of sage, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and a little salt, added to 1.75 pints of water, which is brought to a boil and then simmered for fifteen minutes. The victim was made to doggedly consume every drop. And within hours was on the mend.
Then again, the dried sage I mostly consume these days once belonged to my brother, who died more than four years ago. Maybe he stopped using it himself, and that’s why he passed. Of course, I think of him every day, and so in that sense he is immortal. As is the sage plant, which propagates in a myriad of ways.
This May my most favored sage dish is something I filched off the intertubes and modified not much. It's called The Queen's Soup, and is allegedly served in New Orleans to the royal personages of Mardi Gras. I realize that it's not Mardi Gras season, but so what? Every day is Mardi Gras. As every day is a day of Lent. And a day in May.
5 pounds chicken wings
4 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 leeks, green parts only, chopped
4 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
4 dried bay leaves
20 Italian parsley stems
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
Dump all the ingredients, save the thyme and the peppercorns, in a big stock pot and pour in enough cold water to cover all by at least one inch. Heat to reach a boil. Reduce to slow simmer, where just a bubble or three rises to the top at any one time, toss in the thyme and peppercorns, stir, partially cover, and cook for at least two hours but no more than three. Drain and strain.
refined chicken stock
1 gallon chicken stock (see above)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Dump all in a stock pot, bring to a boil, and slowly simmer for 30 minutes. Drain and strain.
14 cups refined chicken stock (see above)
3 good-sized but not totally mutantly large boneless skinless chicken breasts
.5 cup wild rice
.5 cup jasmine rice
.25 cup unsalted butter
.25 cup all-purpose flour
.5 cup diced carrot
.5 cup diced yellow bell pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
.25 cup chopped fresh chives
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Pour the refined stock into a good-sized dutch oven. Bring to a low boil. Poach the chicken breasts for about 10-15 minutes. Remove. Let cool. Dice into quarter-inch cubes.
Add the wild rice to the stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the jasmine rice and simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
In a wee cast-iron skillet, on low-medium heat melt and blend the butter and flour into a roux. Add the carrots, bell pepper, thyme, sage, and chives. Heat and stir for 3-5 minutes. Dump into the dutch oven. Add to the oven the whipped cream, stirring. Add then the chicken. And cook the whole brew for another 2 minutes. If the thing seems too thick, add some of the reserved refined stock. Make it just so. Then locate a queen, and serve it to her.
There is on the One From The Vault disc a lovely version of the instrumental Grateful Dead tune “Sage and Spirit.” I wanted to embed it here, but no video seems to be present on the tubes. Oh well. Someday. With sage, we have all the time in the world. In the meantime, a little chat from Bill Graham, and some noodles from Jerry Garcia and The New Riders Of The Purple Sage, from the film Fillmore.