Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 19, 2013

John Cannon: Still not wild about Saffron: 02/20/13

John Cannon
The Independent

ASHLAND — Within the course of three days recently, I found myself talking about a song that was released when I was a freshman at Morehead State University 47 years ago. If it was one of my favorite all-time folk/rock songs that may have not seemed so unusual, but it was not. Instead, it was one of those songs for which I had learned the lyrics way back then and that I can still whistle and sing.

The song is “Mellow Yellow” recorded by Donovan in late 1966 and released as a single in February 1967. At the time, Donovan was being promoted as Great Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan. Actually, Donovan was a better singer than Dylan, but who isn’t? Dyan, however, was a far a better songwriter.

On Feb. 9, my wife and I went with our friends from Iran to see a play at Actors Theater of Louisville. Heeding my late mother’s advice that “If you don’t have anything good to say about something, then don’t say nothing at all,” I won’t say anything about the play other than to say it was called “Girlfriend” but should have been called “Boyfriend.” Oh well, most of the plays we have seen in Louisville have been great, but every now and then there is a turkey. This was one of them.

After the play, our friends took us out to dinner at a Persian restaurant just a few blocks from the theater on Market Street in the heart of downtown Louisville. (Iranians are Persians, not Arabs. Most Americans can’t tell the difference, but it’s a big deal to those from Iran.)

The name of the restaurant was Saffron’s, and as we entered, I was looking forward to having another cultural dining experience as a result of my wife teaching English as a Second Language in the adult education program at Ashland Community and Technical College. We had met our Persian friends when he was a physician at King’s Daughters Medical Center, and we have remained friends since they moved to Lexington, where he is a researcher and physician at the University of Kentucky.

If it had not been for our friends, my wife and I would have never dined at Saffron’s because I am wary of eating at an ethnic restaurant where I cannot identify most of the things on the menu. Our friends recommended what we should eat, and I trusted their advice, even though I ignored it. Instead, I ordered the lamb. To say my food was delicious would be an understatement. It probably was one of the top 10 meals I have eaten in my entire life. I ate everything in sight and even loved the sauce made out of eggplant that I spread over my unleavened bread. (Warning: Saffron’s is a bit on the expensive side.)

As we waited for our food to arrive, I told our friends about the first time I had heard the word saffron. It was from Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” which begins, “I’m just mad about Saffron; Saffron’s mad about me; I’m just mad about Saffron; She’s just mad about me.”

That’s when I learned I had been wrong about the song for all these years. I thought Donovan was singing about a girl named Saffron, but our friend, Afon, (pronounced just like it is spelled) informed me saffron is an expensive yellow spice popular in Iran, aka Persia.

“It is supposed to make you mellow,” she said of the spice.

I confess I don’t know much about spices. Once you get past nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, pepper, ginger and a few other spices, I am pretty much ignorant on the subject of spices. I have since learned you can buy saffron in Ashland, but Afon is right: it is really expensive. That’s probably why I had never tried it, or even heard of it.

That was on a Saturday. The next Tuesday, my colleagues Mark Maynard and Tim and Alys Preston and I met for dinner with Bill Secrest of South Shore at the Chimney Corner Café here in Ashland. It seems that Bill, a retired airline pilot who continues to travel the world, had picked up some saffron overseas and given it to chef Paul Runnels with the promise he would use it in a recipe.  

That night we gathered to dine on the meal that used saffron. I am still not sure what saffron tastes like, but the meal was superb. I just could not separate the saffron from the other seasonings in the dish.

I’m not sure the saffron made me any more mellow than normal, but I was able to leave the restaurant and go home and calmly watch the University of Kentucky Wildcats lose to Florida. It may have been my lack of emotion during the game was because of that little bit of saffron I had consumed, but it also may have been  because I am really not that big of a UK fan. In truth, it was probably because I am not all that wild about the Wildcats, but since I live in the heart of UK country, I choose to blame it on the saffron. What can I say? I was just too mellow to care.

Anyway, for almost a half century, I have thought Donovan was singing about his girlfriend, Saffron. I now know better. However, in the second verse, he sings, “I’m just wild about Fourteen; Fourteen’s wild about me ...”

What in the world does that mean?

The two meals did cause me one irritating problem: After more than a week, I still have not been able to get “Mellow Yellow” out of my head.

JOHN CANNON can be reached at jcannon@dailyindependent.com or at (606) 326-3649.