Breadline looking for a few good spices

Kathryn Rem

St. John’s Breadline wants fresh herbs from your garden.

“We grow some and we get some, but we need more,” said Cinda Barger, a Breadline cook who seasons soups and other dishes with home-grown herbs after they’re dried.

Barger has been on a quest to secure seasonings since she started cooking at the Breadline 18 months ago.

“I used to be a gardener at home. I know how many herbs you grow and don’t use,” she said.

Last year, she put out a call for the excess herbs from the backyard gardens of the master gardeners at the University of Illinois Extension. Consequently, the Breadline received generous donations of dill, basil, parsley, rosemary and other fragrant leaves.

Some came through Plant a Row for the Hungry, a program sponsored by the master gardeners that encourages donations of locally grown fruits and vegetables to organizations that feed the needy. In addition, the growers donated herbs last fall from their plot at the Extension office at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

The Breadline also gets some herbs from its own 30-by-20-foot garden, located in a sunny lot next to the organization’s building at 430 N. Fifth St.

“The nurses from St. John’s Hospital took us on as a project,” said Linda Freer, Breadline assistant supervisor. “They planted and paid for a lot of the flowers, herbs and tomatoes.” The garden is watered and weeded by employee John Wieland, who also built a trellis for the flowering vines.

But there still are not enough herbs to season the approximately 180,000 meals served each year at the Breadline.

Barger, 57, learned the art of seasoning food during her many years as a cook at the Hilton, New Leaf Cafe, Walleye Stop and other eateries.

“My kids call it my voodoo cooking — lots of sticks and stems,” she said.

The green stuff does more than flavor meals.

“Herbs are full of antioxidants. We have diabetics and people with high blood pressure and immune deficiencies here. They need as much nutrition as we can give them,” said Barger.

Processing fresh herbs is the job of Breadline volunteer Kyle Taylor of Springfield. After air-drying the greens on metal sheets for up to a month, he handpicks the leaves and grinds them in a food processor.

Five types of herbs — tarragon, oregano, basil, sage and thyme — are mixed to make what is called the St. John’s Blend. The good-on-everything combination is sprinkled on roasted meats and in soups, and put into dishes from stews and pasta to salads and salad dressings.

Taylor, 23, a part-time night janitor when not volunteering, has managed to create 5 pounds of the dried blend so far.

Herbs not used in the blend are dried and used to flavor specific dishes. Dill, for example, enhances tuna salad, salad dressings and baked fish.

Donations can be brought to the Breadline from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Ring the doorbell at the entrance near the back alley and a staffer will take the donation.

“No amount is too small,” said Barger.

“I’m hoping to get enough herbs to get us through the winter this year,” she said, “and every year from now on.”

State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.

Kathryn Rem can be reached at