Power: In Praise of Sage

Long venerated as a potent curative, sage can be a musky, savage herb—but used properly, it is hauntingly aromatic, a familiar taste of fall.

Ron Van Dongen

For a brief time last November, I thought sage had it in for me. I was enduring some legal troubles with my landlord, a meticulous autocrat who lived on the first floor of our town house, and as our dispute grew more disputatious, he began stepping up what had been an infrequent (and incongruously New Age) practice: the burning of sage, a centuries-old Native American ritual meant to purify a place and drive out bad spirits. Thick, pungent whiffs of the smoke would curl their way up into my third-floor apartment. Sage, I came to think, was not my friend. Sage wanted me gone.

This period of angst happily ended when, leafing through a book on herbs, I learned that the sage I'd known since childhood, the tapered, gray-green leaves that give turkey stuffing and pork sausages their woodsy fragrance and depth of flavor, had little to do with the substance my landlord was obsessively torching. He was burning sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, commonly called big sage or desert sage. Most culinary sage is Salvia officinalis (also called common sage or garden sage), a member of the mint family native to southern Europe and Asia Minor—and is no relation, taxonomically speaking; it just smells similar.

Sage and I have been back on good terms ever since. I love the texture of its supple leaves, which can be as velvety as rabbits' ears. I often find myself rubbing them between my fingers before I start cooking, releasing their oddly savage smell—a sharp, feline, almost feral odor that springs from the oil glands at the base of each leaf hair. Thus, it's the fuzziest leaves—the ones I'm most tempted to pet—that smell and taste the wildest.

Raw sage is usually too intense to eat; you have to cook this herb to gentle it and bring forth its glory. The Italians, who are geniuses with sage, simmer it with white beans and garlic until the beans are tender and permeated with flavor; and when I eat the Italian classic called saltimbocca, it's obvious to me that the sage leaves—so bright in their meaty context of veal scaloppine and prosciutto—are the reason the dish is called "jump in the mouth". Sage has a bracing effect on rich dishes because its astringency cuts cleanly through fat and makes flavors dance. Chopped and simmered with mushrooms and cream, it makes a lively and succulent topping for thick slices of warm toast. Sage leaves inserted beneath the butter-rubbed skin of a capon before it's roasted will crisp themselves as the chicken cooks, adding a savory crunch to the flesh. And no other herb is as delectable as sage when fried, either in extra-virgin olive oil or in brown butter.

The old warning about sage—that too much of it will make food taste bitter or medicinal—holds truer for dried sage, which tends to sit in spice racks for years, growing ever mustier. But in fact sage was long considered a medicine rather than a food. Its very name comes from the Latin salvus, meaning safe or healthy. The ancient Greeks and Romans purportedly used sage to treat an astonishingly wide range of ailments, including snakebite, epilepsy, worms, and memory loss; sage leaves were also applied to wounds as an antiseptic. Others in the ancient world thought it could soothe nervous disorders, heal broken bones, and enhance fertility. There was nothing, it seemed, that sage couldn't cure. In tenth-century Arabia, physicians even believed that sage had the power to extend life. Medieval Italians perhaps felt the same way, judging from a Latin proverb of the era: "Cur moriatur homo, cui salvia crescit in horto?" ("Why should a man die in whose garden sage grows?")

Sage had emerged as a presence in the kitchen by the time of the Middle Ages, when Europeans began munching sage fritters at the end of banquets to ease their burdened digestive systems. In America, sage was being cultivated as early as the 1630s, and it became so popular that, as recently as 1975, Joy of Cooking judged it to be "perhaps the best known and loved of all American seasonings". That was before basil and rosemary and other herbs began crowding the field.

But sage, majestic and potent, will always have a place of honor in my kitchen. And, as it's turned out, its aroma no longer has competition from below; several months ago, I moved. I'm miles from my old landlord, our dispute settled in my favor. These days the only sage that scents my house is the one cooking away on my stove.