Confessions of an Herb Thief


The beguiling display of herbs in front of the Spotted Pig includes fennel (with fennel pollen tops), rosemary, and lavender.

Fresh herbs are indispensible to many types of cooking – Tuscan, Californian, Vietnamese, and French spring to mind, to name just a few. Using dried herbs shaken from bottles simply isn’t an option (unless we’re talking oregano or bay leaf, but that’s another blog post entirely).

Herbs are so pungent that the quantity you need is minimal, usually only a sprig or two. If you have a windowsill with enough direct sunlight, fantastic! You can grow your own, assuming you can muster the 20-odd pots you’ll need to get a large-enough range of herbs. (Even this, though, is a constriction of what herbs you’d prefer to have on hand. Yes, you’d love some Vietnamese mint or kari leaf for that special occasion meal, but do you have enough room on the windowsill?)

So you go to the local greengrocer to get some cilantro and some lemongrass. Alas, they cost $3 per bunch, and the bunch is much bigger than you could ever use before the clump turns into – dried herbs. Why don’t these jerks sell smaller bunches for 50 cents or a dollar, so the rest doesn’t go to waste? They know they can squeeze it out of you, you big lunkhead.

And the farmers’ markets are even worse. For around $6, they sell pots of herbs that may or may not continue living in your cramped apartment, and smaller bunches than the supermarkets sell for the same $3. I’ve tried to persuade vendors in the Greenmarket at Union Square to go micro:

“Why don’t you sell smaller quantities of rosemary, just a few sprigs for $1?”

“Why would we do that? Why would we settle for $1 when we know you’ll pay $3? That $3 is what it costs me to package it and bring it to you.” That’s the usual reply, with the last two sentences sometimes implied.

I had long been entertaining this unsatisfactory relationship to my herb sources when I began noticing while walking around the city that there are herbs growing nearly everywhere. Sometimes these — like the garlic chives in Prospect Park — are on neutral territory where you’d have no qualms about filching them.

But even more were in apartment window boxes within easy reach along my route, in big patches in community gardens, and planted as decoration in front of restaurants. In fact, it’s de rigueur for many kinds of restaurants to mount such botanical displays to convince you fresh herbs work their way into the menus.

I’ve come to think of those free herb stashes as something of a public service, an attempt to buy the public’s good will with little sprigs of greenery. Besides, as a gardener I know puts it, “Herbs thrive when stressed and plucked, grow twice as fast and twice as profusely.” He continued, “There’s nothing worse than a ‘shot’ stand of dill, leaning precariously toward the sidewalk where it will certainly perish, if not plucked by some thoughtful passerby.

That’s where I (and maybe you) come in.

To me the sight of herbs growing in a loft-dweller’s window is like a warm pie on an open windowsill is to a hobo in Depression-era movies.