If you have ever seriously considered murdering a parrot, this might be the most important blog post you ever read. According to The Food Encyclopedia, parsley is “poisonous to most birds and lethal to birds in the parrot family.” Here’s the best part. The Kitchen Physician puts forth the contradictory notion that parsley is not only not poisonous to birds, it’s practically a panacea. There is no downside for the would-be bird killer here. If the offending parrot shows no sign of impending demise all you’ve lost is a little time and a few cents worth of parsley. Back to the drawing board go you. If, however, you are circled above a gaily colored avian corpse with your fellow crew mates while a peg-legged autocrat with fake epaulettes bleats on about how you “killed me boiyd!” with tear in his eye you can quite plausibly plead that you had no intention of causing the foul fowl harm. Rather, with references, you could claim that your actions arose from the highest of intentions. That your goal was not to poison, but, to paraphrase The Kitchen Physician, detoxify contaminants, promote healthy skin and feathers, tone the digestive system whatever that means, prevent kidney ailments, and treat arthritis. Thus is venom parlayed into virtue. It’s the perfect crime.
Before Monsanto, natural food advocates had precious little to do. Advances were faster than continental drift but not by much. We changed food to meet our needs, but only Methusela would notice. Corn as we know it came from a wheat-like frond. Celery was never so thick and husky as we are used and in its original form still survives today as smallage, a dead ringer for its carrot family relative parsley. It was this connection that gave parsley its name, from the Greek meaning “rock celery.” I assume by the name that parsley prefers to grow in rocky soil. There is certainly enough of that in any of the regions laying claim to origination: the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, or Southeast Asia. I can only attest to the fact that it decidedly does not like to grow in small orange pots in the American Southeast.
Parsley carries woody and fresh green notes that complement a wide range of flavors. Aside from green, woody, fresh, and sweet the one flavor that distinguishes parsley from other herbs comes from the naturally occurring ingredient menthatriene, a component of some epoxy resins. Keep that in mind the next time someone is trying to scare you off your Mountain Dew because it contains a “fire retardant” which, given the histrionics, I have to assume is not water. Also key components contributing to parsley’s flavor are phellandrene’s lightness and myrusticin’s and myrcene’s sweetness. And that might be the most boring description of an herb you will ever come across. Science has vast and noble aims. Arousing passion is not one of them. Witness.
The curly parsley versus Italian (flat leaf) parsley debate was long ago abandoned as the curly advocates retired and passed onto their rewards. The arguments for the curly version were largely transportation based. Curly parsley can travel farther and hold its admittedly weaker flavor longer. That’s hardly a concern nowadays. Italian parsley, like everything else grown on Earth, is a mere days away from consumers anywhere on the planet. It may have made sense years ago to opt for the lighter flavor of curly parsley rather than spend more for flat leaf and the hope of dark green notes but the risk of listless meh. At least with curly you knew what you were getting. That concern is gone now. The biggest risk in buying flat leaf parsley these days is accidently buying cilantro because every grocer in America seems to think it’s hilarious to place the two herbs that look most alike right next to each other with leaves intertwined. I really hate that.
The question is not so much what to do with parsley, but what not to do. It’s as at home in a delicate white wine and tomato sauce over white fish as it is atop a red wine braise of lamb shank. I’ve used it in the same lemon and garlic sauce for swordfish and pork. It would be criminal, in a non-avian endangering way, to leave unmentioned parsley’s breath freshening properties. “It’s ubiquity as a garnish was utilitarian!” cry the ghosts of curly parsley advocates. Before Certs and Altoids, parsley was the natural Freshmaker.
There may be a chicken or egg question as to whether we find parsley companionable to so many flavors or we find so many flavors companionable to parsley because it’s so long been an available flavor in so many regions of the world. Maybe we are just used to it. It’s hard to imagine, to anyone who can read these words and comprehend rather than mimic their sounds in pursuit of a treat, objecting to the addition of a few sprigs to almost any dish. Unless you get Shigella. That could be nasty.