We recently introduced you to Susan Belsinger, honorary president of the Herb Society of America (LINK TO POST). In this Q&A we learn more about her depth and breadth of herbal experiences.
QUESTION: What are your earliest memories of herbal interest?
ANSWER: I first became enamored with herbs and spices when I went to visit North Africa back in the early 70s. I was intrigued and intoxicated by the sacks of exotic and aromatic herbs and spices piled high in the souk; so I pursued the local women in the Turkish baths and got them to take me home to their kitchens and show me how they cooked their Moroccan dishes. That is when I started writing down recipes.
From there I went to Italy and fell in love with the fresh herbs in their local habitat—rosemary, sage, bay, thyme, lavender and savory—and tasted my first pesto while dining al fresco in the hills of Tuscany. Growing and savoring the Mediterranean herbs was life-changing and magical for me and opened my eyes and palate to a whole new world. I met Carolyn Dille in Tuscany—where we explored cooking with seasonal ingredients and herbs together–and decided that when we returned to the U.S, we wanted to educate Americans about cooking with fresh herbs (which I am still doing today!).
Q. How have you built your herbal knowledge?
A. I learned from hands-on experience. I took some master classes back in the 70s and 80s from Madeleine Kamman, Jacques Pepin, Giuliano Bugialli and Marcella Hazan. I taught a huge variety of classes from growing your own herbs to making your own pasta and pizza to Southwestern cooking at L’Academie de Cuisine, an accredited cooking school in Bethesda, Maryland. I also belonged to Les Dames d’Escoffier, a group of women food professionals, for nearly 20 years and through both of those venues I was able to work alongside many amazing and well known chefs and members of the food industry. Although, I learned a lot about cooking during that period of my life, herbs were my passion, and so I moved on. I did a year-long apprenticeship with Rosemary Gladstar, taking her Art & Science of Herbalism course, which was an extraordinary experience. I have had many herbal mentors in the Herb Society of America and the International Herb Association.
Q. How did you start writing cookbooks?
When I moved back to the states after living in Italy for two years, my friend and cooking colleague Carolyn Dille, also returned stateside. I went to live in California, where Carolyn was from, so we could collaborate and we decided to try our hands at growing and cooking with herbs, and writing about our experiences. It was truly beginners’ luck, as well as some good recipes. We approached Gourmet Magazine about writing articles on cooking with fresh herbs—and they went for it! We spent 1979 testing and writing 12 articles, each on a different herb, which was published as the series “A Calendar of Herbs” in 1980. Those original twelve culinary herbs, along with eight more, became 20 chapters in our first book, Cooking with Herbs published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1984. Our next collaboration was New Southwestern Cooking printed by Macmillan in 1986. Carolyn moved to Maryland, where we researched and wrote The Chesapeake Cookbook published by Clarkson N. Potter in 1990. From there we co-authored five more books together for Interweave Press and wrote numerous articles for the Herb Companion.
Q. What’s your latest book?
A. The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs co-authored with Arthur Tucker was published by Timber Press in 2016. Art and I just finished a new book with Timber Press titled Grow Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens; it is geared towards beginning herbies who like to grow their own and cook with them and it is due out in Spring 2019.
Q. What does it mean to you to be chosen HSA honorary president?
A. Well, first of all, I was surprised and a bit taken aback, wondering why me? There are so many worthy individuals in our organization. I am honored and humbled to have been selected as honorary president and take the position seriously. I do hope that I can help to make positive changes for the membership and I look forward to attending board meetings and getting to know the members of the board and how they work. I thank HSA President Rie Sluder for choosing me as honorary president and the board, for supporting her decision. I do not want to just have a title—I would like to make a difference and help move the HSA forward into the future.
Q. What’s your favorite herb?
A. I enjoy so many herbs, it is hard to choose just one. I could not live without garlic or chile peppers. As far as green leaves go, ‘Genoa Green’ basil has extraordinary flavor. Pesto is truly one of my favorite foods, however any salsa verde (green herb sauce) makes my taste buds tap dance. What is so thrilling is that no two green sauces are alike—and they change seasonally—early spring we have chickweed, wild sorrel, violets, field cresses and dandelion; then the nettles pop up and later spring greens like arugula, mustards, lambs’ quarters, green garlic, wild onions, and chives; and in the height of summer of course there is basil, the oreganos and nasturtium leaves. Who can resist a green sauce to slather on sandwiches, tomatoes, grilled vegetables, steamed vegetables, pizza, pasta and more?!
Q. What’s your favorite workshop to present?
A. I love to give students or an audience a sensory experience with herbs, the more hands-on, the better. That said, there is no one particular favorite workshop. What I like best is doing research and learning new things—that is why I so enjoy having an herb of the year, or an herb of the month—because I can immerse myself in new knowledge, which I find so exciting and inspiring. And then I can pass this wealth of information along to others. The sharing of gardening, herb plants and everything about them with like-minded people is one of the most rewarding things I know.
Q. How would you advise someone who wants to learn more about herbs?
A. I’d have to say just immerse yourself in the plants. Go to an herb garden, nursery or herb sale and start with rubbing the leaves and sniffing them; then have a nibble in order to get the flavor. Go with a gardener or herbie-type so it will be more fun as well as educational. Choose herbs because you like their flavor or their appearance or because they call out to you. Join an herb group or organization like the Herb Society of America where members share plants as well as information from how to grow the herbs to recipes, health benefits and craft projects. Go to the library and check out herb books and guidebooks, then buy the ones you like best. It is important to have a selection of good herbal resources, especially if you are making products or using herbs medicinally. I get so excited when I meet newbies, folks who are just getting interested in herbs, because they have a whole new world of herbal horizons before them!