The English Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) comments on the strength of mint advising:
Mint is a vigorous plant that will spread all over the place if planted straight into the ground. This is why it is a good idea to plant it in a large pot filled with multi-purpose compost that can be placed in a prominent place to make picking easy. (https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/grow-your-own/herbs/mint).
Many specialist gardening sites refer to the plant as having an “invasive” tendency, spreading all over the place. The language of taxonomies is replete in references to plants; gardeners are forewarned that different types of mint will easily cross pollinate if they are situated close by, resulting in hybrid forms which don’t maintain the sensorial integrity of each variety, such as apple, chocolate, ginger and Tashkent. There is in the field of botany a precise ‘science’ of mint. The scent, flavour and texture of mint is noted to be specific to region, soil and climate. Not all of the different varieties of mint are considered to be appropriate for culinary purposes.
I am not sure where the mint in my childhood home we found flourishing under our noses appeared from. More than likely it came with the house we moved to in 1971, becoming a part of kith. None of the four elders who made the house into a home are alive, my father, mother, eldest brother and sister in-law have passed and are lost to us, and with them so are the many stories, textures and scents that sit with the memory of childhood and home. In that period we rarely bought plants or seeds. If the mint had been planted by my family, this would have involved somebody in our kinship network (friend, family or neighbour) casually gifting a root to us. We certainly gifted to many families. Not least of all because it was praised for its proliferating expansiveness, considered to be a good crop to be shared and spread across our relational networks, from London to Leeds. My mother, Kartar Kaur, would proudly hand over a bunch from the roots, usually wrapped in newspaper or a spare carrier bag if one could be found then, to admiring visitors. The stories of mint in our garden paves the way, in this essay, for what Ursula La Guin (2019) refers to as The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (Tera Ignota), a method for gathering the messiness of home making as well as the history of telling it.
We had a semi-paved small city garden tagged on to a large Victorian house with a garage in Coventry. Aside from coriander and mint, we planted very little else. We were not avid gardeners, even though the family had an agricultural background, having migrated from farmland in Punjab in Northern India. The fruits of our labour were orientated towards cultivating education, technical proficiency and professionalism. Two of my brothers joined the cadre of highly skilled and esteemed toolmakers in the then proud reconstructed city of Coventry during the post-war period of boom. Two of my other brothers were amongst the small number of first generation working class migrants from India to attend university, where they studied metallurgy and engineering. My sister, who was born after the boys and eleven years before me, had her education halted when she was married to a teacher. Home was a gendered place, whilst also being subject to changes and challenges over time. Even though the family did not place much emphasis on gardening, an enormous amount of time went into cooking and sharing dishes with a constant stream of visitors at the weekend. My father had directly assisted a large pool of kinfolk to migrate to the UK from India, so we were a dense node in a rich network of distributed connections.
My eldest brother, Harbans Singh, cooked a delicacy with the mint from the garden. He would combine chopped mint with grated onion, grated green sour apples and green chillies to make a savoured chutney. The chutney would be relished on a roti, as an accompaniment to the wide range of curries cooked by my sister-in-law Kulwarn Kaur, who had migrated to the UK to join my brother and our family at the tender age of 16, when I was only three years old myself. When my brother passed away at the young age of 46, gloom hit the family hard. My brother had been my mother’s constant accompaniment and support, especially whilst my father was away in the army in India during WW2. Initially my mother was disoriented and totally coagulated by his loss. She called and wailed out for him while curled in a little bundle under her shawl from India. Having my father beside her, my nephews to delight her and my sister-in-law to carry out the reproductive labour of cooking and cleaning, she found a way to go on whilst carrying a tremendous loss. My father had the ingenuity to sign her up to an Asian elders day centre, whereupon she found affinity with other elder Asian women, as well as the spirit to dress in her best on several days of the week. Not long after my brother was taken from us, we paved over much of the garden. The mint was vastly reduced but still its indomitable seeds continued to pollinate and spread, coming up through the cracks of the paving. Lost by the loss of her eldest son, my mother’s indomitable spirit also found a way of being. She continued to pull bunches of the mint from the ground and to even lob them over the neighbours wall as a gift delivered with wild wit.
Mint chutney stopped being cooked. My sister-in-law continued to cook delicious dishes, until her life was also cut short at the age of 58 due to an undetected illness. She had to leave us just before Christmas in 2013, five months after my father had passed. Our once bustling home became a reminder and remainder of multiple unbearable absences. My mother’s wild wit sustained a light which pulled our umbilical strings to the family home, until she too had to leave us on 16 April (my birthday) in 2019. The mint still straddles here and there through the cracks of paving.
In the prologue to her book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015), Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing asks “What do you do when your world starts to fall apart?” and answers “I go for a walk, and if I’m really lucky, I find mushrooms.” Reflecting on our “living-space entanglements” by following the matsutake mushroom she considers what emerges out of devastation and destruction. To re-cultivate the indomitable spirit of the mint as well as of my mother, as well as in remembrance of the garden scents, chutney, relations and sacrifices of the elders of our family home, the time has come for making a conscious effort to spread out the roots of the mint through our network of family routes globally. Leading to a material and discursive practice for gathering foods and stories, of what was shared and full of contradictions, becoming as Ursula Le Guin put it in her essay A Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (2019), a method for history.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World : On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ursula K Le Guin(2019). The Carrier Bag Theory Of Fiction. S.L: Ignota Books.