By Catharine L. Kaufman — a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink
If you are mistaken for an all-you-can-eat buffet by every mosquito, gnat, flea, no-see-um or other flying, hopping, biting pest within a 100-yard radius, there is a good chance that something in your body chemistry tickles insects’ appetites.
As one who seems to be the bug world’s preferred vintage at its blood-tasting parties, I have long been the victim of itching and scratching, smelly lotions and toxic DEET-spiked insecticides.
Until the day I remembered something my Grandma used to say about ‘Nature’s bug-repellents,’ made me realize I had an entire arsenal of them right here in my kitchen. There they stood, lined up like soldiers on my crowded racks, shelves and counter-tops: scores of little jars and bottles filled with aromatic herbs and spices. I used them every day in the recipes I’ve been cooking up, testing and jotting down for my columns and books—recipes with which I’ve been taking my family, friends and readers on tasty culinary adventures.
What I had forgotten for a while was that each of my herbs and spices pulls multiple duties as nutritious food, medicinal folk-remedy, mouth-watering flavor-booster and, yes, powerful (yet toxin-free) insecticide. Ask any Grandma…
Take stock of the tasty weapons lurking in your kitchen and pantry. Use them as directed below and notice that the bloodthirsty menagerie of flying, hopping and crawling pests are staying away from body and home without the use of any polluting and poisonous insecticides. As you join the Battle of the Bites, you’ll soon get used to thinking of certain plants as external sentinels that send pests scurrying away from your doorstep and windows, and of others as edibles that change your body chemistry in subtle (or in the case of garlic, not so subtle) ways, and make you—forgive me—repulsive to bugs that have been sending you up the wall.
Let me start you off with the wondrous Basil. Grow a patch of this aromatic herb in a strip of well-prepared soil around your patio, window, door—or even in indoor planters positioned near those strategic points—to keep bugs out of your home. Both tasty and fragrant, basil is repulsive to mosquitoes, flies and ants. Rosemary is another hearty ally in the insect war. Plant a rosemary bush in your garden or throw some sprigs of it onto the grill at a cookout to keep flying pests away. Lavender, Lemon Balm, Lemon Thyme and Santolina growing in your garden or indoor pots will also be turn-offs to mosquitoes and gnats.
A pleasant way to infuse your body with an aromatic repellent is by brewing up a pot of mint and rosemary tea. Steep both leaves and stems in boiling water for several minutes and drink it hot or cool, but not iced or sweetened.
Coriander and Cilantro are distasteful to spider mites, while Mint will keep your picnics free of ants. Aphids don’t bite humans but kill flowers and other plants, unless you grow a protective circle of Catnip, Chives, Fennel, Garlic or Mustard herbs around them.
A potpourri blend of Vanilla beans, Bay leaves, Clove, Sassafras and Cedar shavings will keep pesky flyers out of your home. Place fist-sized cheesecloth bags filled with this mixture around windowsills and other vulnerable openings. Equally effective are baskets or bowls piled high with Eucalyptus leaves, when placed around the same strategic areas.
Have you noticed how attractive you are to mosquitoes after a good, sweaty workout? That’s because they just can’t resist your body’s carbon dioxide emission. Quick! Fake them out by lighting a candle nearby and watch them being lured away by the CO2-emitting flame.
Since the little buggers love lactic acid produced by the body after eating salty or potassium-rich foods, consume your pretzels, potato chips and bananas indoors, or during mid-day, when mosquitoes hide from the heat.
Protect your tender skin by taking daily doses of vitamin B-1 (Thiamine Hydrochloride), which secrets odors that are offensive to mosquitoes—though undetectable to humans and other animals (as far as we know). Since vitamin B-1 is water soluble, you cannot overdose on it, even as you systematically build it up in your body—something you should do purposefully before embarking on extended outdoor activities, such as hiking or camping.
Also, eat plenty of fresh garlic—a natural insect repellent—to ward off mosquitoes (not to mention vampires that might be lurking in the vicinity… or in your imagination). Substitute garlic capsules when close encounters of the romantic kind are on your agenda. Although the caps may not quite pack the insect repellent punch of fresh garlic, the tradeoff is that neither will it repel someone whose amorous intentions you would welcome.
By the way, garlic capsules are effectively used as blood-thinners and to lower blood pressure–both holistically, without any of the side effects their pharmaceutical counterparts have. Still, it is important to discuss such uses with your physician.
For topical repellents, splash apple cider vinegar on your skin, or rub it with crushed parsley or basil. Certain plant oils will also do the trick—Citronella, Lemon Eucalyptus, Cinnamon, Rosemary, Lemon Grass, Cedar, Peppermint, Clove and Tea Tree Oil are among the favorite skin-savers. In extreme situations (the Amazon jungle?), rubbing a few juicy cloves of garlic on all exposed body parts will send every creepy-crawly running for shelter.
While fragrant and endowed with calming and other healing attributes, oils extracted from lavender, pine, allspice and soybean plants seem to have only moderate effect on rendering people unappetizing to bugs. There is evidence, however, that rubbing one’s body with pure vanilla pods slit open to expose the beans, is a stronger alternative.
If you are looking for a unique fashion accessory that doubles as a bug repellent, wear a bandana rolled with crushed mint, basil or any herb combo tied around your neck or head.
As a “sweet-blooded bug-bait,’ I double-protect myself during mosquito season with both topical rubs and foods that chase the pests away. Here is one of my favorite anti-insect foods—a tomato, garlic, basil Bruschetta. You can also pile these toppings on garlic toast for a double dose of protection. It’s got quite a bite to it—not to mention a lethal breath. Not to panic: chewing a few sprigs of fresh parsley, or about 5-6 coffee beans will make your breath sweet again. If neither is available, look for the mint mouthwash. (No, chewing gum won’t do it.)
The Kitchen Shrink’s Killer Bruschetta
1 ½ cups of chopped ripe tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 fistful of fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of fresh squeezed lemon juice
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
For the bread:
1 baguette (seeded or plain) sliced ¾ inch to 1 inch thick
1 tablespoon of butter
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Combine the topping ingredients in a medium glass bowl. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
In a fry pan on medium heat, sauté the garlic in the butter and oil. Brush the mixture on both sides of the bread and toast.
Arrange the hot toasted garlic rounds on a serving platter and top with the chilled tomato mixture. Serve immediately.