A Terroir of Parsley by Natasha Sajé
In her creative nonfiction piece “A Terroir of Parsley,” Natasha Sajé reflects on “terroir,” or “the quality an environment provides…for all things that grow,” including “climate, the soil and its minerals, water in air and ground, weather, and wind.” Her survey of identity as it is shaped by place encompasses a series of environmental shifts: her immigrant parents’ moves from Slovenia to Germany to New York, her immigrant husband’s from Jamaica to London to Baltimore to Salt Lake City, and her own moves from a “stateless” birth in Munich to New York City to Baltimore to Salt Lake City. Their environments are defined by gardens and yards and what grows there, and cooking, from her parents’ sauerkraut to her cherry jam to the many uses of parsley, “a two-season herb in Utah.”
“Parsley plants spring up where I least expect them, in the most unwelcoming crevice, for instance between stepping stones.” They are hardy and adaptable. They can thrive, even flourish, in environments without water. For centuries, all over the world, parsley has been employed for its medicinal properties and flavor in cooking. (In her author’s note, Sajé refers to her early plans to write a “foodoir” with recipes. A portion of this essay, along with a recipe, was originally published as “Parsley” in Alimentum: The Literature of Food in 2013.)
When Sarah Menkedick set out to investigate the simplistic dichotomy between the research essay and the personal essay, Leslie Jamison told her:
I have always felt like the genre divides between personal writing and critical writing and reported writing never made that much sense to me, not because I didn’t understand that there were particular skills and legwork that go into archival research or critical research or journalistic reportage, [but because] in terms of how I experienced the world, those selves are very connected inside of me, and so it always made sense to try and find forms that expressed the way they were speaking to each other.
Digging into the concept of the terroir and history of parsley, Sajé finds strength in adversity and a form that embodies interconnections between environment and her own experiences. —CRAFT
At first glance, a reader might miss the “i.” And see terror, from the root for “fear,” which many people feel these days. But the French word terroir comes from terra, land, and refers to the quality an environment provides, originally in the making of wine, now for all things that grow. It includes climate, the soil and its minerals, water in air and ground, weather, and wind. Humans use ingenuity to make the earth serve us, but we can’t control terroir.
My awareness of terroir has been intermittent—as when I realized that better-tasting tap water on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley comes from snow melt, and west side water is taken from wells that might be polluted by an open-pit copper mine, a mine so large you can see it from space. Until I moved to the high desert of Utah, I’d never lived in an environment that made me pay such close attention to water: its sources and the need for conservation. I didn’t know about plants that thrive with scant rainfall and snowmelt, such as the herb parsley.
After growing up on a farm in Slovenia, my father attended the Yugoslav military academy to become a career officer in the Royal Yugoslav Army. He was exiled after WWII because of Tito and Communism, and married my also-displaced mother in Munich, Germany, where I was born stateless in 1955. We immigrated to New York City, but my father never lost his farmer’s ethos. When eventually we had a house and yard, he grew vegetables, fruits, and herbs, and he fermented sauerkraut whose sulfuric smell assailed my nose when I lifted the crock lid. My chores included tedious weeding and watering; I would have preferred reading in my room.
I didn’t appreciate the earth’s bounty until I had a garden of my own—with a peach tree and azaleas and boxwoods—as an adult in Baltimore. I was married to a chef who had grown up in rural St. Mary’s, Jamaica, and then moved to London. Tyrone spent his youth in a sunny country where avocados and mangos fell from the trees, and later learned to navigate many a metropolis.
Tyrone and I moved from our Tudor Revival house and garden of acid-loving plants in Baltimore to Utah twenty-two years ago. He gave up his position as a country club chef so that I could take a full-time teaching job. We bought a 1965 tract house in the Salt Lake foothills. I argued for the quiet neighborhood known as Rattlesnake Cove in part because it was so very different from Baltimore. I thought we shouldn’t try to replicate what we had left behind, that we could adapt to this strange desert. The rivers and streams of the Great Basin flow into salt lakes, where the water stagnates, evaporates, or sinks into the earth, making the soil alkaline. Because the area was once covered by ocean, archeologists can find four-hundred-million-year-old coral rugosa. Sun, heat, and unshaded exposure make the mountain directly behind us, Grandeur Peak, attractive to rattlesnakes, and the hill is a refuge for weeds. That first week in the new yard, neighbors advised us to wear gloves while pulling noxious myrtle spurge.
We killed the lawn grass and installed drip irrigation. Tyrone hauled and placed the heavy red flagstones made from local boulders. I unwrapped the root balls of plants and placed them in the holes Tyrone had dug. We planted scrub oak, penstemon, barberry, sagebrush, and chokecherry trees, alongside non-natives like “blue mist” spirea that also survive with little water. Xeriscaping keeps the water bill low. Every August I make jam from prunus virginiana, the only native North American cherry, a painstaking process because the tiny purple-black fruit must be pitted by hand, after boiling. Combined with pectin-rich frozen cranberries, the result is a brilliant red, slightly astringent jam with a faint almond undertone.
Sadly, even with compost, the Grandeur Peak soil is poor for vegetables, and if we could produce a tomato or cucumber, rats or raccoons would eat them. However, two flat-leaf parsley plants I bought years ago have multiplied into thousands. The Latin name for parsley, petroselinum, comes from the Greek word for stone, petro, because parsley could grow on rocky hills. I was surprised to read that most gardeners prefer curly leaf parsley so as not to confuse the plant with poison hemlock—conium (fool’s parsley), the neurotoxin that killed Socrates. I have learned to recognize the difference: hemlock thrives and blooms only in early spring. It needs moisture that parsley does not, and moreover, hemlock leaves are rank when crushed, while parsley has an aroma that makes me want to eat it. “Da springen die Vitamine,” my father would say, when looking at a mound of it. Parsley contains vitamins A, C, and K, and folic acid, but like spinach, its oxalates can interfere with calcium absorption.
Parsley contains apiol, an antioxidant oil which Hippocrates used to regularize menstruation or cause abortion, something still in practice in the Middle East. It would be difficult to eat enough parsley to do harm, but high doses of the extracted oil cause kidney and liver damage. Parsley is a diuretic, so men with swollen testicles used to be treated with a topical paste made of parsley. Parsley paste draws out the venom of poisonous insect bites. I’ll try this the next time I am stung by the yellow jackets that are abundant in our neighborhood. In the 1960s, parsley was smoked as a cannabis substitute.
If you’ve only had supermarket parsley, you might not understand the addictive flavor of the herb. A 1634 Neapolitan tale written by Giambattista Basile features a pregnant woman who steals parsley from the garden of an ogress. The ogress demands the unborn child, named Petrosinella. The girl is eventually freed, like her fairy tale descendant Rapunzel. In the German story, however, the Grimm brothers feature a mild salad green with demitasse-spoon shaped leaves, whose buttery flavor is very different from assertive parsley.
I never tire of the parsley I grow, perhaps because it’s a two-season herb in Utah. New plants come up in spring and fall, while in the summer I can only harvest mature and slightly tough side leaflets of soon-to-seed plants. In the late summer months, passersby probably think my yellow, dried-out parsley plants, mixed with dry lupines, are weeds. Yet because parsley is a biennial, new plants always grow alongside mature ones. In November I gather seeds and pull the dry stalks. After the first hard frost, new plants are buried under the snow or visible but frozen, their cells broken into glassy chlorophyll wetness.
Parsley plants spring up where I least expect them, in the most unwelcoming crevice, for instance between stepping stones. One area five feet in diameter under a pine tree where nothing has grown before is every April thick with knee-high parsley. I love its ability to thrive without water; indeed, the flavor is intensified by poor soil and drought. I sometimes offer parsley plants as gifts, but if the recipient’s soil is richer than mine, the herb won’t taste as good. Horace said, “[A]dversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.” He was referring to people who don’t know what they are capable of until tested by deprivations and difficulties. Does adversity always cause change, I wonder. It seems impossible to create a formula because “circumstances” are in flux, and humans adapt as fast as rats. A new environment, however, spurs change when the food and water that we have taken for granted are gone. Empty supermarket shelves are a kind of adversity, mild enough when items are restocked the next day or week, yet something I have never, in my sixty-five years, experienced before.
I use parsley roots in stock, and I make quinoa tabbouleh with eight times as much parsley as grain. Tyrone taught me to wash and dry the herb, then chop it with a very sharp knife. He would tie up the papery bright green flakes in cloth to keep in the refrigerator. Taking the shortcut of a food processor tears and then purées the herb; conversely, the leaves in tiny pieces permit teeth and tongue to discover them. When I close my eyes, I can see Tyrone’s knife flashing like a shooting star.
The Greeks didn’t use parsley in cooking, but they revered it as a symbol of oblivion and death. Myths say that parsley grew where the blood of an infant prince spilled when he was left alone and then eaten by serpents. He was renamed Archemorus (the forerunner of death), and parsley was used to make funeral garlands. A Greek idiom, “to be in need of parsley,” means to be near death. In 2006, Tyrone was diagnosed with a rare kind of lymphoma. I recall the hundreds of vials of blood taken from him during his treatment, his attempt to keep working during the initial chemotherapies. And later, the bone marrow transplant followed by palliative radiation, when we had accepted there was nothing more to be done. I think of him dying, three years later in winter, when our garden was dormant.
And I see myself finding love again, while parsley plants were growing under snow. What enabled me to rebound so quickly from the death of a spouse I loved for thirty years? Perhaps I prepared for his death during the years of his illness. Perhaps the high desert toughened me, like the Pfitzer junipers that can be severely pruned and then grow back. Perhaps the desert terroir taught me to admit what is possible and let go of what is not, and then to grow another relationship in this same place, this same house and garden. The spread of parsley plants is an image of their resilience.
I have now lived in Salt Lake longer than anywhere else. I have forgotten the smell of mildew. I can’t remember what it’s like for people to push past me on a sidewalk, and not just because of our current social distancing, but rather because the vast space of the American West influences the way we move, even in cities. I’ve grown used to mountain ranges that always let me know where and when I am. I merely look around and orient myself by the lower, western Oquirrh and the higher, eastern Wasatch ranges. I can look at the mountain a mile away and know by the amount of snow on its crags how many weeks it will be before the noon heat makes me stay indoors.
The Mormon pioneers, who were taught by Indigenous peoples to eat sego lilies, would agree with Horace that adversity can be positive. Utah’s nickname, “the beehive state,” underscores the value of industry, but honeybees, like the Mormons and like me, are not native here. We were brought or brought ourselves to a desert valley that is now crowded with people. The dry climate should make people conserve water. We don’t all realize what we’ve taken for granted. In this desert valley, however, everything is green in the summer, every tree, every lawn irrigated and fertilized. When I asked the director of Salt Lake water services why water isn’t more expensive to discourage people from wasting it, she shrugged. “It doesn’t cost us much. The mountains are close.”
Someday I’ll leave Utah and move back to an Eastern city where people bump each other on the sidewalk. Until then, I’ll thrive in the desert, in part by prizing plants that do well in this terroir. And I’ll know that it will just be months until I will have parsley, just a matter of months until I’ll have more than I need.
NATASHA SAJÉ is the author of three books of poems; a postmodern poetry handbook (Windows and Doors: A Poet Reads Literary Theory, Michigan, 2014); a memoir-in-essays, Terroir: Love, Out of Place, published by Trinity UP last November; and a chapbook of poems from Diode Editions this summer. She teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program.
Featured image Peggy Choucair courtesy of Pixabay