A Melancholy History of Chives or, Sulfur? I barely know her!

Private equity is eating the world and spreading rod-shaped gram-negative bacteria. 

A Melancholy History of Chives or, Sulfur? I barely know her!

Title: Observation #2

Date: May 23, 2024


First, a recording that makes you the observer. It's best with the sound on.
And then some words.



Some words

I wake up every morning as I really am, a melancholic. Sorrow pulses through me, I produce it and I consume it.

The Ancient Greeks would have said my spleen produces an excess of black bile. I guess they are still. The word “melancholy” comes from Freek for black bile, μέλαινα χολή.

Black bile was one of the four humors, the others were blood, yellow bile and phlegm. The Greeks said the humors were produced by the digestive system. They were responsible for regulating human health and behavior. Balanced humors produced a balanced person. Imbalanced humors produced an imbalanced person. 

A person with too much black bile, a person with melancholia, was fearful, despondent, sleepless, aimless and aching. When black bile pooled in one part of their body, it grew cancer. 

The Romans added prone to delusions to the list of melancholic symptoms. The Medieval Christians decided that an excess of black bile made people vulnerable to demonic possession. That those people were often women was neither here nor there, I am sure. 

By the 18th century, there was a sense that melancholia enriched the fertile minds of philosophical men. But melancholy women were just fallow fields. 

Sometimes I wish I could use a different word to describe my waking self. One less heavy with the meaning of men. But language creates reality. And I have a sense that the way I feel each morning is epigenetically connected to the reality created by the meaning of men.

How many of my foremothers were declared unbalanced as they wept over things that deserved their tears? How many of my foremothers kept themselves from feeling, to avoid the charge of melancholy? Maybe I wake up seeping with my ancestors’ unregarded sorrow. Which is a kind of possession. So one point to medieval Christians, I guess.

After an hour or two in the garden, I can open my mouth without bile pouring out.

It’s always hard to get my waking self out of bed, but it's easier in the spring. The wildflowers and weeds leech away a bit of my melancholy. After an hour or two in the garden, I can open my mouth without bile pouring out.

There are chives in the garden. They aren’t my chives. I didn’t plant them. They do not belong to me. But I am not sure they belong to the person who put them in the ground either. This wasn’t her garden any more than it is mine. My neighborhood was platted in 1887, just twenty years after the Sand Creek Massacre. The ground was taken from its First People.

The dirt was formed during the Eocene. The chive has been cultivated since at least 2000 BC. Its roots are deep and broad. Chive fact pages tell me it is the only species of allium native to both the new and old worlds. Except that designation only exists to reinforce authority. Really, there is no new world or old world, there is only this world.

When I buy chives from the grocery store, they come in a little plastic clamshell.  On average, fresh herbs spend half their shelf-life being transported, undergoing different types of packaging along the way. The fresh herb industry is one of the fastest-growing agriculture markets. Fresh chives are only second to fresh basil in sales.

Private equity has moved into this corner of the ag business, vertically integrating across continents and industries. Sometimes, their brands cause an outbreak of salmonella poisoning - a thing more likely to happen the further produce must travel long distances. Vertical integration is eating the world and spreading gram-negative bacteria. 

It isn’t wrong to buy chives at a grocery store.

Vertical greenhouses using hydroponic technology can change the post-cut existence of a fresh herb. Just one type of packaging. 48 hours of transport. 

I get to see chives grow because I get to pretend this garden is mine.

Jewish Family Service of Colorado runs a vertical greenhouse a couple of miles from my house. They grow herbs and other leafy things. The technology uses 95% less water than traditional farms. Some of the food they grow is sold to local restaurants. Some of it feeds hungry families that depend on the JFS Food Pantry.

I didn’t know chives had pink flowers until I moved into this house and saw them grow. I get to see chives grow because I get to pretend this garden is mine. I get to pretend this garden is mine because of my class, skin color, and my husband’s salary.

Who gets to grow food? Who doesn’t get to see that chives have pink flowers?

Jewish Family Service of Colorado recently restarted their refugee resettlement program, because there were not enough resources for Afghan refugees. The US government only gives refugees three months of cash assistance. 

If I had three months from thisverymoment to get a job that paid enough to keep my children housed and fed at market rates, I could not do it. There would be nowhere to grow the chives. And no food to finish with the chives I could not grow.

Last week, I pulled my sodden waking self outside and sat on the ground that is not mine next to chives that are not mine. The scapes were straight and the flowers close to a full bloom. Each inflorescence holds up to 30 pink, star-shaped flowers.

The petals feel like thin paper. Blossoming tengujo. I want to screen a sunroom with the petals. I want to see what the sunlight looks like when it passes through the pink and bounces against my skin. But that’s fairy work. And I am a melancholic woman. 

A melancholic woman can make chive blossom vinegar. It’s easy. 

Wait until the flowers have all opened, but have not yet faded. Cut each group of flowers at the base of the scape. Tip the blooms into a mason jar. Unpacked, they should fill it 3/4 of the way to the top. Then pour warmed white wine vinegar over them. All the way up to the neck of the jar. Let it sit in a cool place for two weeks, covered. Then strain the vinegar into a clean container. 

The flowers will be spent, but don’t worry. Their bloomingness has been preserved in the liquid. The vinegar will taste a bit like sweet chives, a bit like sweet garlic, and a lot like white wine vinegar. Most importantly, it will be pink. I can hold the jar of chive blossom vinegar up to the light, and look at how the sun passes through it onto my skin. 

Maybe I am sorrowful because I have sorrow, and not because of bile or bacteria.

Vinegar is good for your gut. And scientists think depressive disorders - like melancholy - have something to do with the signals your brain and gut send to one another. A healthy gut full of healthy bacteria means less melancholy. Which is very different from the Ancient Greek theory of the four humors and not very different at all.

Maybe I am sorrowful because I have sorrow, and not because of bile or bacteria. But maybe a daily dose of chives blossom vinegar will help. What if that’s all my foremothers needed all along? Tip your head back and sip. 

In post-classical Europe, people hung bunches of dried chives from rafters to protect their homes from evil spirits. In 1633’s Generall Historie of Plantes, John Gerard wrote of chives, “They caufe troublefome dreames.” He also said they could cure “the bitings of venomous beasts.” 

Chives can keep biting from happening too. The sulfur compounds in chives repel many insects, like the Popillia japonica that skeletonize my grape leaves every year. The smell of the sulfur compounds is most apparent to human noses when the plant has been cut or bruised. Chive juice is an excellent homemade insect repellant. 

Some scientists believe the compounds in chives might be useful anticancer agents. As a melancholic woman, whose family dies of cancer before their heads are grey, I want to believe this too.

Chives produce a lot of nectar. Bees love chive nectar. A garden that needs a lot of pollination should be strewn with clumps of chives. 

Harvesting chives is easy. Just cut a couple of inches above the dirt, leaving a few leaves standing. The plant will grow back before the season is done. It might flower again too.

Leaves are more tender than scapes, but both are nice. I can’t think of a savory thing that doesn’t benefit from fresh chives. I especially like them on top of soft scrambled eggs. The blossoms can be used to make our vinegar. But they’re also nice sprinkled on top of salads, mixed into a chive blossom compound butter, and dried into a chive blossom salt. 

I harvested my-chives-that-are-not-my-chives a little early this spring. I want to watch the flowers bloom while I write at the kitchen table. I want to dry the chives and hang them above my bed. I want to pack the inside of my body with sulfuric scapes and blossoms, so that no black bile can pool and no cancer can grow. 

(Wanting means the chives are working, as I wake up wanting nothing.)

I kept my hands bare while I cut the scapes and leaves, letting the juice sit on my palms. As I moved my hands through the air over the next few days, I smelled the sulfur compounds. Another layer of protection. It's gone now.

I once read that soothsayers used chives to predict the future. They'd throw the scapes and leaves on the ground, reading meaning from the shape of their landing. I don't know if that's true. And if it is, I don't know how to do it.

Still, before I gathered all my chives in an old takeout container, I tossed them up in the air. They landed softly. I looked down. They pointed this way and that, crossing over one another, forming shapes and interrupted lines. It's possible the chives told me my future and I just didn't know how to understand what I was seeing.

Another person, from another time and place, might have looked down and recognized meaning. And that's almost something, isn't it?