THE PERFECT PESTO
by Jake Morrill
For a very long time in the history of the world’s kitchens, pesto was not. Then, at some point in 1985 or thereabouts (no one can be sure), pesto irrefutably was. Pesto was lodged in our consciousness like a fleck of basil in a carriage of pine-nut will lodge between your incisor and the tooth that goes beside your incisor. But in 1981? Had you ordered some pesto? Mentioned it in conversation? You would have been roughly handled, tossed out on the street. No. People did not know about it then. But in 1986, they would have shrugged, as if you were ordering a ham sandwich or mentioning your affinity for the craft of Danny DeVito. When pesto hit, it hit big. People craved it. They’d gobble down a bowl, slam the bowl to the table, and begin to moan, whine, and twist in their chairs until their bowl was re-filled. Well, at least in my house.
My mother made pesto from scratch. The basil, the pine-nuts, the garlic, the oil. Was there some white miso paste dolloped in? Some salt? And cracked pepper? Who can tell! Who can say! It just appeared, bowl after bowl, before me, the Parmesan already generously having been stirred in with the paste and the noodles (“paste,” in this instance, referring to the savory gobbet of basil and not, as you might have fleetingly wondered, to what is made from rendered horses for schoolchildren’s crafts). You might think, “What a lucky fellow! What bounty! What ease!” And yes, to be sure, for a time, this was true. But darker days were to come.
For it was also in the late 1980s that a peculiar sense fell upon me. A sense encouraged by others. One I could not resist. It was the sense that, no matter my fat-bottomed comfort, time was drawing near when I must leave home. “But why?” howled the depths of soul, reasonably enough. “Because,” said the world. So, I left home for the cold wilderness of New England where people played hockey and were somehow also much smarter than me. This was the period of early decline, when decline seemed a lark and not a full-blown lifestyle. The books at sporting goods stores (which is where the snacks are) tell you that when you are in the wilderness, be it New England or elsewhere, you will have the chance to see things and learn things you would not see or learn back at home. For me, preeminent among my storm of questions and keening desires, was this: how could I get some pesto? In your mind, you will already be pointing me to a restaurant, saying to me, “For Pete’s sake, you moron, where else would they keep the pesto?” I hear what you’re saying to me in your mind, and I respect it, friend, but I will tell you that, while I went to many a restaurant and ordered a bowl of pesto, what they brought to me, for all its other fine qualities–the presentation, the clean spoon–it was not what at my mother’s table I had learned to call “pesto.” Perhaps it’s a matter of culture at play. I grew up in a sort of a culinary Valhalla, by which I mean the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee, in the years when Ronald Reagan was confirming what we already knew.
To wit: you simply can’t eat out in the world what you can eat when you are at table in East Tennessee. I do not mean squirrel or rabbit. You get these in Kentucky, or plenty other fine places. What I mean is pesto. Friends, I tried. I went to Americana style restaurants that were trying to enliven their menus. I went to leading-edge groceries where they’d sell a small tub from the reach-in cooler where they also had your better cheese. I followed a recipe not in one cookbook, but in cookbook after cookbook after cookbook. This stretch of despondency lasted until 2003, when, with a swell of resolve, I packed my family and possessions into a Swedish car and drove south. We set up camp only a few miles from where my mother lives. And ever since, the way to predictably arrive at a warm bowl of pesto has been clear to me.
- Tell sister confusing information so she is distracted, and will not draw the Mother’s attention away from her primary focus on getting the necessary volume of pesto into her only son;
- Butter up Mother with quips like, “That sunrise this morning sure was something! But do you know what the glory of God’s creation, backlit at dawn, is not better than, Ma? That darn pesto you make!” Keep a steady, warm flow of these quips going at all times in the process.
- Ask Mother if she has planted basil that year. Maybe it’s January, or she hasn’t gotten to it yet. But that’s no excuse! Continue to inquire after the status of the basil patch until you are out there one night around Presidents’ Day, helpfully holding a flashlight over her while she sows the basil seeds, sometimes muttering nonsensical things like, “I wish I lived near your sister” or “we’re both getting too old for this.” Ignore that–she’s cold and may be sleep-talking, given the hour. Encourage her to focus on the task and maybe stop talking so much, since it’s upsetting you both.
- When it’s warmer, maybe April or so, you can send postcards, asking “Well? Is it time?” She will know what you mean. If you set up camp at her mailbox, you can save on postage but also respect the “boundaries” they were going on about at the family intervention they held after Presidents’ Day, when for all the blah blah blah, they never did get around to the central topic at hand, which was pesto. That’s why it’s important to send reminders to family-members–they can easily drift, and then who on earth is ever going to get pesto?
- Around Memorial Day, you’re going to want to tie a big cloth napkin around your neck. You’re going to want to plant yourself down at the Mother’s picnic table, lawyers be damned, and you’re going to want to sit there with a big spoon, perhaps until July, until you get what it is you have lived for ever since that harried weeknight in 1985 when before you appeared the only thing in the world that has ever seemed good. Season to taste.