I recently posed a simple question to my Instagram followers: If you like pesto, what about it do you like?
The responses were a combination of snappy takes, pointing out the obviousness of liking the sauce, including, “What’s not to like?”, “Where do I begin? Everything,” and “It is the best. Truly.”
Others were incredibly detailed, touching on the texture, smell and flavor, like this: “Who doesn’t like pesto? It’s savory without being overwhelming. It elevates any and every pasta,” and “There is currently pesto in my gob. It’s zingy. It’s fresh. It has a brilliant ability to coat whatever it’s covering thoroughly.”
Others, like my friend Victoria, whose family is from Rome, shared more personal accounts. She said: “In my family it’s kind of a ritual. It’s deeper than just a sauce to put on pasta. It’s a connection to our heritage and our roots. For me, when I taste it, I have intense flashbacks of my grandparents’ veggie garden in the country, summers spent picking those same vegetables, the smell of tomatoes, straw, and pool water on my skin from playing all day. That smell that is so unique to the countryside in Italy there are no words to describe it. I hear my grandmother’s voice.”
Although I don’t have familial ties to Italy or pesto, I was pleased to know that I am not the only person with a deep appreciation for the green sauce that originated in Genoa, the capital of the Liguria region in northern Italy. Everyone’s responses validated, in some way, that I had made the right decision earlier this year when I decided to start growing my own basil.
I live in a concrete jungle, and by “concrete jungle” I mean that I live in an apartment filled with 30 plants in New York City.
I have cared for some of these plants for years and for others for just a few months. Friends call me for plant care advice, my Instagram explore page is filled with images of other people’s jealousy-inducing greenery and decor. And though my pothos, monstera, snake plants, palm and money trees have always thrived, herbs have been a pain point. I’ve tried growing mint, rosemary, oregano, lavender and basil and failed miserably, ushering in jokes from my father, a former farmer, about my inability to grow them.
One of my goals entering this year was to grow some herbs. I had forgotten about this goal entirely by the end of February. But when quarantine came about, I gave myself three simple goals: to organize my jewelry, exercise daily and grow basil, so I could make my own pesto.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love pesto. I put it on everything from pasta or a sandwich or, what close friends have called “disgusting” — eggs. A roommate I had in university put it on his eggs and suggested I try it. I did it once and never looked back. My favorite restaurant in New York City — Via Carota — serves octopus with pesto. I don’t think one can really ever have too much pesto.
Beyond utility, growing my own basil would allow me to bring a little bit of Italy into my home. My life is filled with items from the Mediterranean country where I lived for a few years: a map of the capital, various clothes and accessories and some furniture, but what I wanted was ritual, not just objects.
Earlier this year, I read Fanny Singer’s book, Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes and Stories, an intimate portrait of herself and her mother, the chef and food activist Alice Waters’ approach to food and life. I was struck by how Alice’s “fixation with beauty never approached preciousness,” as Fanny put it. There were beautiful objects in their home, but they were used to create wonderful meals and memories. They didn’t live and die on shelves or in cabinets. The ritual of growing something, picking it, cooking it and sharing it stayed with me.
I ordered a baby basil plant and some seeds from a local plant store and got started. For weeks, I was diligent about caring for the basil. As the lavender wilted and the mint was fried by the sun, my child, the basil thrived. I watered it every other day, making sure the water drained through the bottom; I rotated it in its spot next to my kitchen window to ensure it got plenty of sunlight. I quickly learned that the secret to keeping it growing was to trim it regularly.
My love for pesto began in high school and I remember it the way most people remember their first kiss.
I was sitting in the Noodles and Company in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland after theater rehearsal when I ordered a bowl of the pesto cavatappi. I remember wondering what exactly all the ingredients were. I was curious what pesto was. My diet had mostly consisted of sadza, the staple food in Zimbabwe where I am originally from, and various vegetable and meat sides, including a dovi (a Zimbabwean peanut butter vegetable dish that gives pesto a run for its money.) When I had that first bite of cavatappi I was a goner.
I’d had a life-long fascination with Italy, a far off place I’d never visited, but had read voraciously about since childhood when my father gave me a picture book of ancient Rome. I recall taking some leftovers home to offer to my parents. My father was intrigued. My mother less so. Pesto did not have a breakthrough into our kitchen (it was expensive and our apartment was too dark to grow anything), but I tried to ingest it anytime I got the chance.
It’s no surprise then that on the day that I moved to Rome four months after turning 18, I walked out of Despar with many jars of different kinds of pesto. I didn’t know there could be so many variations. Did everyone else? I called my parents and told them a few days later. Each time I ate out that first year in the city, I ordered pizza with pesto or pasta with pesto. Ocasionally, I veered and ordered carbonara or risotto. During my second year in Italy, I had a roommate who had an equally alarming love of the sauce. This would be a friend for life, surely.
In Italy, as I learned about food and wine and art and history, I learned about myself. I went to aperitivo for the first time, drank my first spritz, ate lasagna made by someone’s nonna and brought to school as leftovers. I made gelato and pasta from scratch — things that some had grown up around and others had grown accustomed to in this orbit were still novel to me. I found every moment thrilling. I traveled across the country and tried all kinds of food that was foreign to me, each meal more enthralling than the last. My love of Rome and with it Italian food was cemented by the time I got on a plane back home years later, teary eyed that it would likely be a long time before I could return.
Back in February, as I read headlines about coronavirus in Italy and closely followed the Instagram stories of friends across Italy and Facetimed with many of them, I felt a pang of guilt and I wished I could be closer to them or more helpful from afar, somehow. Things weren’t bad in New York yet, but they soon would be. I remember my friend Giulia asking me from her own plant-filled Roman apartment, “Do you understand how bad this virus is?” She was as cool and confident as I’d always known her to be, but I sensed underlying fear in her voice, too.
The virus arrived in New York soon after (it likely was already here. We just didn’t know). In April, with sirens blaring daily as they headed to the Covid-designated hospital a few blocks away and as cases in the city rose, I clung onto my plants, especially my basil as a form of self care. I worried about my elderly parents’ health, but knew I couldn’t go visit them. I cried when I read about all the people who were dying and not having physical funerals around the world.
Watering, rotating for sunlight, trimming for growth became my ritual. I started growing some plants for friends.
After a few months, my pride and joy, my basil plant, was large enough for me to make my first batch of pesto. I reached out to Italian friends to see if they had recipes they were loyal to and found that though there were many variations in recipes. Some people liked Parmigiano Reggiano. Others hated it. One friend suggested I try spinach instead of basil. Another suggested pecorino instead of Parmigiano Reggiano. I’m not one to steer from the classics (please keep your zucchini noodles to yourself), so I got some pine nuts, pulled out my favorite olive oil, some garlic and some Parmigiano-Reggiano and salt and got to work.
I recently learned the literal meaning of the word “pesto.” It comes from the verb pestare — to crush or to pound. The sauce is traditionally made by being ground in mortar and pestle. Armed with that knowledge, I knew I had to use a pestle and mortar to make my own pesto. (I don’t own a food processor, but everyone assured me that works, too.) I used the pestle and mortar from Permanent Collection, the company Fanny Singer is a cofounder of, to grind the ingredients together. How was it?
I’ll never buy a jar of pesto in a grocery store again.