I’ve learned to say zee instead of zed for the last letter of the alphabet. I don’t say leftentant any more, I say lootenant. It took me awhile to call Karkees Kakees. (Khakis.) The one Canadian shibboleth I can’t shake is pronouncing the word for that lovely herb Bayzil. It will always be Bazzle for me, as in Basil Faulty. But all this etymological chat is just me yammering on — let’s talk about the herb.
I can’t remember the first time I tasted basil. It wasn’t as a young woman travelling in Tuscany in February, for sure. I didn’t miss it — all the trattorias and bars stocked luscious poached pears with chocolate sauce, served warm. It wasn’t in the Quebec of my childhood: the herbal profile was Old French: summer savory, thyme, clove, nutmeg. In some Fellini time warp I found basil at the same year Marcella Hazan’s seminal Italian cookbook was published, which was close to the time we moved to the “Ville and I planted my first garden. I’ve talked about how I love to spill seed into the ground — flowers, vegetables, and herbs, and I’m still astonished that basil is so darned easy to grow.
My husband’s paternal grandparents, operatic cooks and gardeners, didn’t grow basil — and his Nonna’s family hailed for Porta San Pietro, a suburb of Naples! I remember Nonna having a shake jar of dried basil in the pantry, next to the oregano she preferred, but she and Nonno never grew or bought fresh basilico. I’m going to lose some foodie cred here: although fresh basil is best, dried basil should never be despised.
Gardening here in Chicagoland is tough, especially if you, like me, love the economy and charm of a package of seeds, rather than bankruptcy at the Garden Center. Deep freezes, snow , and root buckling in the winter, a late spring, and a long hot summer that can be either rainy and tropical, like this year, or blistering and dry. Oh, the Augusts I’ve scoured the soles of my feet on the frizzled Astroturf of our lawn during a dry spell.( This year the lawn should be mowed every other day.) But no matter what the weather gods bring, basil grows from seed in these parts.
I always buy one basil plant from the nursery in the drunken besotted state of a Midwestern gardener in May. Among the chives, tarragon and weeds you can see the original Big Basil plant here, and Willow’s fans can see her paws in the upper right hand corner.
I think I paid three bucks for it, and it provided that sweet, minty, summery lift I needed when every other herb was either sulking or nonexistent. But when I bought it, I spent a buck on a package of seeds, planted them in pots, and strewed them about in the beds. For you Californians, Georgians or Virginians who are probably scratching your heads about my excitement — you don’t understand. A swell herb that sprouts from every single seed? Impossible, but true.
I’m doing something with slices of eggplant (deep fried) ragu, pattypan squash and cheese for dinner tonight. Strewed inside and out with the cheapest and cheeriest product of a seed pack I know. Maybe I’ll avoid the irritating pronunciation divide of the great English speaking nations and call it basilico.