Cooking with Mama
Barbara (Lanning) Keith, aka Mama and Nana, is the matriarch of our herbalist family and the reason we are passionate about the green path. While our family tree contains many healers, our own herbal story begins with her.
Raised on a farm in Cambridge, Ohio, Barb grew up tending gardens, raising and showing cattle, canning harvests, and sewing clothing. Her deep love of herbs was sparked after the birth of her first child, me, in 1981. She was determined to give me a good, clean, and wholesome start to my life. That same year she planted her first herb seedling in our garden, rosemary. Thyme, basil, oregano and parsley soon followed. She made all my baby food from scratch, incorporating herbs from the garden as she learned how to use them in her own recipes. By the time my brother Nick was born in 1984, her bookshelf was stuffed with titles like, Organic Gardening, Women's Healing Herbs, and the Complete Book of Herbs. Her garden steadily grew with the help of nurseries like Herbs and Ewe which specialized in medicinal and culinary plants.
While Barb has always carried a love for growing and using herbs, the spark that lit a lifelong passion happened when she visited Oak Hill Farm in West Lebanon, Indiana. Herbalist Marge Clark, author of cookbooks It's About Thyme, The Best of Thyme, and Christmas Thyme, held one day seminars in her carefully designed gardens. Marge led her classes through acres of her many intricate gardens then gathered all participants for afternoon tea. She not only spoke of her handcrafted recipes and books, she prepared the dishes and encouraged her students to taste and try. To learn the flavors of each herb and spice and how to appreciate and use them in their own kitchens. My mama returned home full of inspiration and ideas and shined bright with a passion for culinary herbalism. Barb returned to Marge's gardens several times over the next few years and collected all of her cookbooks which she still treasures.
Barb's own garden grew more abundant with herbs of all types as she grew more confident and curious.
"Food is Medicine," became the house motto and in our kitchen, my mama shined! Every Sunday became new recipe day, and she created or tried a dish the family had never tasted before. Each time she would watch eagerly as my papa, brother and I lifted forks to our mouths. When we hummed "mmm" and exclaimed "oh wow" between shoveling bites in our mouths, she would grin big with triumph and enter the new recipe in our family cookbook.
As Nick and I grew older we were encouraged to choose our own day of the week and make our chosen recipes for family dinner. We were encouraged to make a mess, try new things, and learn our way around the kitchen. In this way, we learned the taste, smell, and feel of the many herbs in our garden and on the pantry shelves.
As the years went on, Barb's talent grew bigger as did her love for the art. She created airy vanilla bean cakes infused with a hint of lavender flower, hand-cut pasta colored green with herbs and dripping with fresh oregano infused sweet cream butter, flat breads spread with soft roasted garlic, sweet caramelized onions, and whatever herb called to her that day in the garden.
When interviewing my mama for this story, I asked her what her favorite triumphs are, her very best dishes that she has crafted and created. She told me she didn't know, that isn't really for her to say. That is for others to decide. However, when I asked about trials and errors she lit up and stories and giggles poured out of her to share. "Once, years ago, I decided to make a fancy dish using a whole ham to take to a pot luck family reunion. I went to the garden and carefully chose the prettiest leaves of several herbs, brought them in and minced them, then patted them on the meat until it covered the whole ham. Over the herb layer, I draped thin layers of filo dough until the meat was completely encased, and popped the whole thing in the oven. While it was baking, we all got dressed and ready, loaded the car with lawn chairs and just as we were to walk out the door, I pulled out my fancy picnic dish. My heart dropped; the filo dough had not become the crispy shell I had planned, but had melted down the sides of the ham to a big gooey puddle. We were on the way out the door, it was too late to try to fix it or make something else. So, I owned it. I marched the big mess across mom's yard and placed it on the table with all the other dishes the other family members brought. Everyone had a taste, and there were a few funny faces made as family carefully carved a slice of ham around the globs of dough. One family member, my Uncle Bob Miller, moved his chair to sit next to the ham. He spent the afternoon eating every bite of the weird dough blobs and exclaimed it was one of the most delicious things he had ever had at a picnic. Thank goodness for uncles.”
"Another incident happened the night before a 4-H bake sale. I had found a recipe that used pantry staples and quickly made over 300 cookies from one batch of dough! I was working full time, so after work on a Friday I came home and started baking. The recipe was interesting because it called for a bit of tomato ketchup to add a little "zing" to a standard spice cookie. I rotated cookie sheets of dough in and out of the oven all evening until all 300 cookies were golden brown and ready. Every counter and flat surface in the kitchen was covered in cooling cookies! I had a little taste that night, and it was super zingy. In fact, it tasted like ketchup. I hoped once they cooled, it wouldn't be so pronounced. By bedtime I had all the cookies cooled, bagged, and priced. Next morning, I placed my abundance of bagged ketchup cookies on the horse show bake sale table. The baked goods all around my cookies sold quickly, and my poor cookies sat there. A few sold out of curiosity or kindness, but I saw most of them in trash cans around the arena. The cooled cookies tasted like a big mouthful of ketchup! Much to the chagrin of the family, I brought the remaining ketchup cookies home. The kids and husband were not interested, but our billy goat was a big fan!”
"I was really excited when our local newspaper hired me to create a themed cake to place in a big charity cake auction held in our shopping mall. Your papa made me a wooden base and I baked a snow-white cake in the shape of a roadside newspaper box. I piped snow white letters of merengue to form the name of the newspaper, and carefully baked them crisp. The boxes up and down our road were bright red, so I started adding red liquid food coloring to my buttercream. Being careful, I added a few drops and stirred. Pale pink. I added a few more, and had a slightly darker pale pink. Hmm. Less carefully, I added more. And more. Pink, to rose, to hot pink, to deep pink, to dark fushia. Several bottles of food coloring and a very sore stirring arm later, I had red icing! I spread the bright red on my white cake and placed the merengue letters on the side, and the whole thing was moved to the wooden base...it looked like a read paper box! I covered the cake and went to bed excited for the auction. Next day, we hauled the cake to the mall with no problems. I took the cover off for the big reveal, and my white letters had turned pink. Still, the cake brought a good price for the charity. Plates were brought out and people began slicing their cakes to share. The person slicing mine yelled, "wow! Cool!" and others nearby asked, "Barb, how did you do that?!" The icing had bled into the cake creating red drips and lines running through every slice. It looked like I had used a fancy and difficult technique to create a marbled effect, and I wasn't about to say otherwise! I let out my breath and grabbed my things to go home. People grinned and waved good-bye and I nearly choked on a belly laugh! Every person had bright red teeth, lips and tongues! It was hilarious, and still remembered.”
I had a wonderful afternoon remembering and laughing with mama, talking about all the fun things she has made and tried. But I was determined to get her to tell me a favorite recipe. I asked, "why are you so eager to share your disaster stories with everybody, but not your successes? You have made so many wonderful things, things most people would be happy to crow about!” She said, "Jenni, it is more important for people to hear that everyone has failures and disaster dishes, so they won't be afraid to get in their kitchen and try. Just try. You won't get good at something until you make some big messes over and over again. Just go for it, make a mess, then own it.”
After our visit, I came home and sent a message to the family, asking everyone for their personal favorites that Barb creates. The answers were quick in coming, and many! My brother Nick listed homemade noodles, fried chicken, baked mashed potatoes and corn from the garden. His favorite comfort food meal from home. My Aunt Julie sent a photo of a well-worn cookie recipe Barb shared with her 30+ years ago that she still makes regularly and keeps with her family favorites. My husband Ken shouted "Creole butter and herb injected turkey!" and our daughter Leah quickly agreed and added peach marmalade to the list. Brandon couldn't decide if he loves mama's lavender cake or lavender cookies the best, and immediately made his way to the kitchen to bake them using her recipe. Patricia Lanning, Barb's mom and everyone's grandma, spoke of lasagna packed with fresh cheese and handmade sauce from garden tomatoes and herbs. She also said, "I am most impressed by Barbara's cakes. She always makes me a beautiful cake for my birthday, and they are so delicious I look forward to them every year. My favorite so far was the cake she created for my 80th birthday party. She made a cake with several tiers and layers, and it looked like a real patchwork quilt!”
I had a difficult time deciding on a favorite. As Barb's daughter, I have had a front row seat to her kitchen magic my whole life. Her workspace is clean and bright with sunshine, and always full of laughter and sharing. It is the place in her home we are all drawn to when visiting, and she and my papa are almost always creating something to share while we are there. One of my many favorites was something she made as a teaching tool while running her own culinary herb class. Mama made a simple meatball, excluding the herbs and spices we all typically add. During her class, while teaching about her favorite and most used herbs, she uncovered pan after pan of meatballs. Each pan of little meatballs was made using only one herb or one spice. As she spoke of each plant, we were able to taste it cooked in something to get a true idea of how it could work in our own dishes and recipes. After class, there was much excitement and many recipes shared. Half of her students went straight to the plant nursery and the other half carpooled to the grocery store. Every single person left inspired to create something new, even me. No one inspires me to create things more than my mama! In her classes, she repeats important lessons like, "the herbs are meant to compliment, not dominate your dish. The flavors should work in harmony, in balance. It is important to taste as you go. We can read herbals and talk about herbs until we are blue in the face, but you need to taste them. Fresh basil from the garden is different than basil you've dried, and different than the basil you can buy at the store. All have their own flavor, and you can only learn them by trying them. Go make a mess and learn. It is worth it. Don't forget to cook with all your love. Food is good medicine."
Mama is still finding new recipes to try, though at the moment she is busy baking goodies for family members with four legs and wagging tails. My own senior terrier Jasper was diagnosed with heart disease and placed on a low salt diet. Mama and I searched pet store shelves reading labels, shocked by the amount of sodium added to almost all the dog food and treats. We immediately grabbed herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy from the bookshelf and mama set to work in the kitchen. Jasper is now a very spoiled pup, as are all the dogs that visit Nana, as she is always passing out pretty bone shaped goodies filled with sweet potato and ginger, peanuts and rosemary, pumpkin and cheeses. Whole grains, real meats, and herbs included to treat ailments and encourage wellness. Barb plans to set up a table at the Centerburg, Ohio U.S.A. days festival, June 22-24 with her new creations. Be sure to stop and see her if you are able!
Do you have questions about cooking with herbs? Need a good recipe or a family BBQ or potluck? Include them in the comments or email us, and we will do what we always do...we will ask mama!