So this is what I do…

Cornwall_2Friends outside the herbal-realm, are often a little confused by what it is that I do and that’s understandable. I wear a lot of hats, possibly because I get bored doing the same thing all the time.
I teach classes on herbal preparation and self-care at a local community college and I work with a small group of students each year who want to dig a bit more deeply into the subject of herbs.  I  have private educational consultations with people who want to safely incorporate herbal preparations into their self-care regimen. I have a handful of clients (mostly doctors) for whom I write patient handouts that incorporate an integrative medicine approach.  I also travel around a bit, because I teach at conferences and am the Event Manager for the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference.

When I really want to get my nerd on, I write articles for various herbal publications on the history of healing and if I am lucky my editor lets me bring in some modern research or clinical experience, which back up the old ways.

Sometimes I call this work ethnobotany. It is a term that at least some people vaguely understand, but my anthropological focus is actually ethnomedicine.  I investigate far more than how plants were used by a culture because I was taught that to understand a native healing practice, you have to know a place.  You have to understand that culture’s history,  social structure,  agricultural practices, and spiritual beliefs in a way that gives you a complete picture as to how healing occurs in a society-both physical and emotional.

Because I was interested in connecting with my ancestors, my focus has been on historical healing practices in Ireland and the British Isles. This means I have compiled a pretty massive library of electronic sources and actual books,  written about stuff that only a handful of people would truly be interested in reading.

Recently, Kiva asked me to share some of my research and I got a LOT of response to that post and realized my research was in a mess.  At the same time, the Universe also contrived to keep me at my desk. So now some of you, may benefit from my broken foot, some rainy weather and a pretty impressive display of OCD on my part.

All of my sources have been plugged into my OneNote or Zotoro and are easily exportable.  Though it meant putting other projects on the back-burner briefly, I think this will help me be more productive in the long run.

Hopefully, if I have managed all my tech right, you will be able to click on the image in this post and download my 20 page research bibliography.


Homemade Sour Mix

IMG_8374Today was time to plan the menu and the big b-weekly shopping trip.  The challenge this week is that when it is just the boys and I we don’t go through food quite as quickly, so I have some ingredients leftover from the last big shopping trip which I need to use up quickly.

Throwing food away triggers sort of anxious feelings in me, so tonight I found myself staring at the baskets of limes and lemons I keep on the shelf in my kitchen, thinking about what to do with them before they went bad.  I thought about  making lemon and lime curd, but since the girls moved out that goes bad before I eat it up.

The other night during a class I was leading, someone mentioned a whiskey sour and I’ve kind of been craving one. The problem is that I hate the sour mix that is used in bars with a passion.  That nasty artificially flavored high fructose corn syrup is something that I wrote off years go.  So I decided to experiment.  I tweaked a recipe I found online by making a citrus simple syrup.

Sour Mix
1 cup of water
1 cup of raw cane sugar
grated zest of lime and lemon
1/2 cup lime juice
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

To begin with place the water and the citrus zest in a sauce pan. Add the sugar and stir until it is dissolved. Bring this mixture to a boil and allow it to simmer for about five minutes. Remove the sauce pan from the heat, cover it and let it sit until completely cool.

In the meantime you can be squeezing the limes and lemons. Strain the citrus juice into a jar and when the above mixture is cooled completely, strain it in to the juice. It is really that easy.

This can be used in margaritas and whiskey sours, but you can also just add a tablespoon to a glass of sparkling water to make a quick glass of lemonade.  I will warn you though that this recipe is more on the sour side than sweet.  I like a good tangy glass of lemonade-not sugar water.

I also took the leftover citrus rinds and put them in the half gallon jar and covered them with apple cider vinegar. I will let this steep for a couple of weeks in the herb closet and then will strain this and use it to make summery vinaigrette.

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Preventative Living

I always feel badly this time of year because people are messaging me left-and-right asking what to do for their sick family members. While I have tried to do my best to address that in various blog posts over the years, what I really feel like saying to them is “I wish you had asked me this six months ago” because so much of what I do to keep my family kids healthy during the cold and flu season involves preventative measures that just don’t work when you start in January.

The most effective way to achieve wellness is by incorporating herbs and plants in your daily self-care regimen rather than trying to use them as substitutes for OTC or prescription synthetics medicines.

You have to think pro-actively.Let’s face it, while they have undoubtedly saved many lives, antibiotics have made us a little complacent. We know that we don’t “have” to be preventative because the pills are always there to fall back on.  Unfortunately,  we have done that too much and now are facing a new breed of pathogens that are resistant to our antibiotics.  So maybe it is time to start talking about prevention more seriously.

Whenever I think of self-care I think back to days when domestic medicine was the common practice.  In the days before antibiotics, prevention was a matter of life-and-death. The cookbooks, domestic manuals and receipt books of the past make that clear.  There were a few common themes in these sources that I would like to introduce in this post and then maybe expand on at a later date.

Everyday Dishes Were Made with Many Herbs and Spices.

Because of my views on eating your herbs, I probably cook with a wider variety of herbs, spices and other ingredients than most people I know.  But when I start poking around in my ancient cookbooks, I am reminded I don’t come close to what was done in the past.  The other thing that is clear is that the cooks knew that these ingredients had health promoting properties. The following images and passages were taken from an illuminated (medieval term for illustrated) medical manuscript which was translated from Arabic texts into Latin some time in the late 14th century.

Leeks (Pori) Nature: Warm in the third degree, dry in the second. Optimum: The kind called naptici, that is, from the mountains and with a sharp odor. Usefulness: They stimulate urination, influence coitus and, mixed with honey, clear up catarrh of the chest. Dangers: Bad for the brain and the senses. Neutralization of the Dangers: With sesame oil and with the oil of sweet almonds. Effects: They cause hot blood and an acute crisis of the bile. They are primarily indicated for cold temperaments, for old people, in Winter, and in the Northerly regions.

Leeks (Pori)
Nature: Warm in the third degree, dry in the second.
Optimum: The kind called naptici, that is, from the mountains and with a sharp odor.
Usefulness: They stimulate urination, influence coitus and, mixed with honey, clear up catarrh of the chest.
Dangers: Bad for the brain and the senses.
Neutralization of the Dangers: With sesame oil and with the oil of sweet almonds.
Effects: They cause hot blood and an acute crisis of the bile. They are primarily indicated for cold temperaments, for old people, in Winter, and in the Northerly regions.

Harvesting Dill Source: Tacuinum of Vienna

Harvesting Dill (Aneti)
Source: Tacuinum of Vienna
Nature: Warm and dry toward the end of the second degree and the beginning of the third.
Optimum: The kind that is green, fresh, and tender.
Usefulness: Brings relief to a stomach that is cold and windy.
Dangers: It is harmful to the kidneys and causes nausea with its essence.
Neutralization of the Dangers: With lemoncellis – the juice of small lemons.
Effects: Moderately nourishing. It is good for cold and damp temperaments, for old people, in Winter and in cold regions.

Most cook books had recipes that mentioned healing and certain spices or spice blends were attributed with improving physiological function. Spice blends often had names such as  “Powders That Digest the Food”: One part pepper, two of caraway, three parts dry coriander; pound all that and sift and use.

De re coquinaria or Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome was  written around 400 C.E. by Apicus and contained a recipe containing over 15 herbs and spices called “Sales Conditos ad Multa”  or  “Salts for Many Ills”  to be “used against indigestion, to move the bowels, against all illness, against all pestilence as well as for the prevention of colds.”

One of my favorite recipes from the An Andulus cookbook is called “The Great Drink of Roots” which I will save for its own blog post as it contains well over 30 ingredients. The anonymous author attributes it with many health promoting properties saying the drink “fortifies the stomach and the liver, opens blockages of the liver and spleen, cleans the stomach, and is beneficial for the rest of the phlegmatic ailments of the body.”

Special Dishes Were Prepared for the Ill and Convalescing
I think people will are familiar with the idea of serving chicken soup for a cold, but in fact historical receipt books contained many foods  specifically meant to be served to the ill or those recuperating from an illness.  I explain some of the reasons for this in my post on caring for the ill.

Woodcut originally published in Kuchenmeistery, a pamphlet cookbook first printed in Nürnberg about 1485

Woodcut originally published in Kuchenmeistery, a pamphlet cookbook first printed in Nürnberg about 1485

Barley was  popular fare for invalids in France and England. The early 14th century French,  Le Viandier de Taillevent contained an entire chapter titled “Foods for Invalids” and included directions for hulled barley gruel. Later in the 13th century the French manuscript  Le Menagier de Paris  included a similar recipe and a recipe for a sweet tisane made with barley and licorice in the chapter on beverages for invalids.  Today, I sometimes substitute steel cut oats in these recipes for those who avoid barley due to its glycoproteins.

This is a recipe that I sometimes use in demonstrations from the An Andulus cookbook.  In the past, the choice of ingredients used for it was likely based on both seasonal availability and the particular energetic properties of the foodstuffs.

Vegetarian Dish Beneficial for Tertian Fevers and Acute Fevers
Take boiled peeled lentils and wash in hot water several times; put in the pot and add water without covering them; cook and then throw in pieces of gourd, or the stems [ribs] of Swiss chard, or of lettuce and its tender sprigs, or the flesh of cucumber or melon, and vinegar, coriander seed, a little cumin, Chinese cinnamon, saffron and two ûqiyas of fresh oil; balance with a little salt and cook. Taste, and if its flavor is pleasingly balanced between sweet and sour, [good;] and if not, reinforce until it is equalized, according to taste, and leave it to lose its heat until it is cold and then serve.

Choose one of the following ingredients:
½ lb. gourd (pumpkin or squash)
½ lb. chard or beet leaves
1 lb. lettuce
2- 8 inch cucumbers.

2 cups  lentils
1 tsp salt
5 cups water
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp  cumin
2 tsp. cinnamon
6 threads saffron (substitute 1 tsp. turmeric)
¼ cup vinegar
¼ cup oil

Boil lentils about 40 minutes until they start to get mushy. Add spices, vinegar, and oil and salt. Add one of the vegetables; leafy vegetables should be torn up, gourd or cucumbers are cut into bite-sized pieces and cooked about 10-15 minutes before being added to lentils. Cook lettuce or chard version for about 10 minutes, until leaves are soft.Cook gourd or cucumber version about 20 minutes. Be careful not to burn during the final cooking. Honestly this works best if you do the final stage of cooking in the crockpot.  In the medieval medicine class I taught at PS1 over the summer we served this with a dash of verjus ( fresh juice squeezed from unripe grapes) and it was quite good.

People Followed a Regimen

Once upon a time,  most physician-healers passed a long a holistic healthcare philosophy which focused heavily on a regimen of prevention, exercise, a good diet, and a good environment- you know one free of any sort of demons or spirits that might make you ill and full of people who were of good character.  There is much to think about in that philosophy.

Domestic practices  were informed by these teachings as passed down through the generations. One English  parenting book published in 1839 advised “When we take into account, that the food we eat is converted into blood; that if the food be good, the blood is good; and that if the food be improper or impure, the blood is impure likewise; and, moreover, when we know, that every part of the body is built up by the blood, we cannot be considered to be too particular in making our selection of food. Besides, if indigestible or improper food be taken into the stomach, the blood will not only be made impure, but the stomach and bowels will be disordered.”

Due to this thinking,  people incorporated herbs and foods into their diet that were considered to purify the blood. These were often the first greens that popped up in the spring after long winters subsisting on preserved foods.

Domestic medical practices involved some odd preventative therapeutics, as well.   Generations of European children were  lined up and given a weekly treatment referred to as “treacle and brimstone” (sulfur) which was thought to be a blood cleanser and acted as a laxative.  Regular doses of castor oil were common, also.

Thankfully, today we know of more pleasant tasting concoctions which are health promoting and we have a vast array of herbs and spices at our immediate disposal.   It makes little sense that in these days of plenty, we should be at the mercy of epidemics that are brought on almost entirely due to deficiency.

Apicius, & Starr, F. (2009). Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. (J. D. Vehling, Trans.).
 Pegge, S. and Lindahl Greg (2005). The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery Compiled, about A.D. 1390.
 Marx Rumpolt, Ein New Kochbuch (1581), tr. M. Grasse.
 Martinelli, Candida.  13th Century Al-Andalus Cookbook
 Power, Eileen. The Goodman of Paris (c. 1393)
 Pye Henry Chavasse. (1839). Advice to mothers on the management of their offspring.

Bringing it Home… 2016’s Theme Word

Stephany Hoffelt Iowa City HerbalistWhile I generally avoid resolution posts,  I do like to reflect on what has been worked this year and set an intention for the next year.   I can honestly say that for a year that started out a little shakily,  2015 ended on a fabulous note.  Things are really humming around here.

Part of that is because my husband and I worked damned hard to make that happen. We called in some outside help, set boundaries, made time for one another and focused on self-care and rebuilding.

Kiva told me at the conference in the fall,  that I looked ten years younger, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I think this year has been less stressful than any since he started the really travel intensive project in 2011.

With a firmer foundation under our feet again, we have moved on to other projects.  I have a home office/classroom. The boys have their own rooms on a different floor.   We managed to literally run through an entire dump-truck full of mulch while working on garden projects.  We turned some work trips into work vacations.  

Towards the later part of 2015,  I started focusing on building my professional presence, locally.  Historically, it has been much easier for me  to find professional outlets in other places.  I do freelance research, write herbal handouts for physicians on the coasts, submit articles to herbal publications, work on course development for the Herbal Academy.  I  travel to other areas to teach classes, because that is where the demand has been.   While these jobs pay the bills, they don’t leave me feeling as though I am “walking the walk” of a  grassroots, community herbal practitioner.

When I was at my conferences in the fall,  I took part in a great conversations with colleagues from other parts of the country.  What I took away from those conversations is that not only does every person have different needs, every place does, too.   There was not point in my trying to  emulate my friends’ work models because most of my  friends  live in different places and what works for them,  won’t work for me.   And my place needs me, much more than the Internet or the coasts do.  There are plenty of great herbalists out there, but only a very few here. 

I also was reminded that the winds of change have been blowing, even in the Midwest.  Four years ago, I contacted the local community college about offering classes and I was pretty rudely dismissed..  But on a  colleagues advice, I came home and tried again. Now I have a great programmer at the college encouraging me to teach classes.  I also have other venues interested in hosting my classes.   (Funny how I spent all spring getting my home office in order and now  affordable venues are popping up all over.)

I crafted my classes for the complete novice.  When I walked into my first continuing education class this fall, most students didn’t even know what a tincture was. They were entirely new to the subject of herbs, which is a lot of fun.

Keep in mind that none of this is easy for me.  Putting my introverted, not entirely neurotypical self out there is a challenge for me and there are days I worry that I am not up for it.  It is like having to be “event manager” on all the time instead of for  So, that makes hanging on to my self-care practices developed over the last year even more necessary.

We had so much fun on our work vacation to Colorado that I thought about  throwing myself on a whirlwind teaching circuit but then I think about all my garden plans for the spring and summer and my desire to cultivate a more meaningful  presence in my community.  So I will keep my conference attendance to those I could not bear to miss or whose mission really speaks to me.

Continuing my focus on  my home and community in 2016 makes the most sense for me on a lot of levels.  First, it gets me away from my desk. Secondly ,  I get to focus my creative efforts on local projects, home improvements, making stuff and playing in the dirt and that sounds like a pretty good year.

So “home” is my theme word for  2016.   What is yours?