Note: This post is a reprint from December 2009, and was part of last January’s herbal blog party.
“…Come close to me, oh companion of my full life;
Come close to me and let not Winter’s touch
Enter between us. Sit by me before the hearth,
For fire is the only fruit of Winter.
Speak to me of the glory of your heart, for
That is greater than the shrieking elements
Beyond our door.” -Kahlil Gibran
Leaving the Sonoran Desert for Western Wisconsin in the winter is one way to assure that the weather will remain on my mind throughout the day. Although I’ve survived winters in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago and Oxford, the disparity between riding my bicycle in my shorts during Tucson sunsets and navigating ice, snow and freezing rain in Eau Claire makes for quite a stark contrast. But I have to remind myself that this isn’t the first time that I was taken aback by the cold: bitter, startling, numbing. And although I’ve found a lot of foods and herbal allies to help ease the pain, it is the ones that I tried in community that warm my heart and help me stoke the fire of memories while planting the seeds for better days in the weeks and months to come. Here are the ones I remember best.
BREAKFAST HERBS AND SPICES
When I left Illinois and Ohio in the fall of 2002 to complete an internship in drylands permaculture, I spent four months sleeping outside. For someone accustomed to sleeping in a heated room indoors, even the 50’s seem painfully cold. Although I experimented with prickly ash tincture, it is the breakfast spices that I remember. Our motley crue of interns would hang out in the communal kitchen, concocting breakfast surprises for the rest of the gang. Although warming herbs and spices can send blood out to the surface (making it colder when going back outside), this wasn’t much of an issue since we were simply waiting for the sun to rise so we could go outside and work. When it was my turn to cook, I’d add different combinations of all the warming foods and spices I could think of: garlic, onion, cayenne pepper, black pepper, cumin, rosemary, you name it. These go quite well with eggs (or potatoes for the vegans) and can be accompanied by chai or ginger tea. Ginger tea is easy to make–just boil 6 cups of water, add a couple teaspoons of grated, peeled ginger root and let is simmer on low heat for 5-15 minutes. The tea can easily be combined with other medicines–a couple sticks of cinnamon if you’ve got a bad cold, a tablespoon of osha root and/or wild cherry bark for bronchial problems (add a nice dose of honey to that one) for some examples. Or, make chai by boiling raw milk and water and adding a stick of cinnamon, a bit of fresh grated ginger root and small amounts of black peppercorns, cardamom pops and fennel seeds. Simmer for 15 minutes to an hour, and sweeten with raw honey.
FOOD AND MORE FOOD
One of my friends who is an acupuncturist often speaks of all of the clients he gets each New Year. They all come to him wanting acupuncture and Chinese herbs to help them lose weight. He tells them to come back in the spring, because he sees winter as a time for nourishing and rest. He recommends a diet comprised of protein with plenty of soups, root vegetables, teas and limited raw food. Although there are a variety of Chinese herbs that are good for building immunity (astragulas and rehmennia among them), the flavors tend to leave a lot to be desired. A really great warming Indian spice that is also used in Chinese medicine, though, is asafoteida (sometimes referred to as hing). It can be found in Indian grocery stores, as well as some natural food stores. Although it can be served as a milky emulsion, I prefer it fried and cooked. It is a great ingredient in curry. In India, the spice is fried and added to ginger, black pepper, cumin seeds, pillpi long pepper, ajowan, nigella seeds and rock salt and often served with rice and ghee (clarified butter). I like using asafoteida in curries and stirfrys, along with warming oils such as sunflower or sesame. I sprinkle nuts on top, too.
A BRITISH TREAT
While studying abroad in Oxford, I was invited to a Christmas party in which the most delectable beverage was being served… mulled wine! Although not exclusive to the UK, they do sell mulling spices in the grocery stores… Anyway, I was so taken by it that I asked a wise elder I was studying with, Katy, for her recipe (as follows). Simply take a large pan, pour in a couple bottles of red wine and up to half a bottle of brandy and add cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and maybe star anise. Heat gently and hold it just below the boiling point for about twenty minutes to allow the spices to release. Add sugar if the wine is very dry, or even water–taste throughout and adjust as needed. Although Katy wouldn’t add orange or lemon slices to the delectable concoction, some people like to. Other spices are also sometimes used so feel free to experiment! Sometimes people put all the spices in a little muslin bag (or a square of muslin with string round the top) so that you don’t get little bits of clove in the glasses. Remember to serve warm! Don’t drink alcohol? Mulled cider is also quite tasty!
FIRE AND FRIENDS
Although I am still quite new to Eau Claire, I will always remember our Winter Solstice party at Phoenix Garden… Fire is quite warming and not just physically, and there’s something about spending time around good people who want to help make the world a better place. All the layers of clothing, wool mittens, down comforters and medicine in the world won’t warm your heart the way community will… here’s to a year of nourishment, connection and community!