(Ocimum Basilicum, or in some notations, Ocymum Basilicum)
Back in the dark ages, my first boyfriend and I lived for a few years in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had just left the farm of my childhood, and although Utah didn’t provide a thunderous cultural awakening, it still wasn’t a bad environment for a naïve eighteen-year-old to embrace his sexual identity. I have since come to realize just how sheltered my Salt Lake City life was, but at the time I basked in the newfound glory of living in the relative freedom of urban life, frolicking amongst my people.
Boyfriend-number-one and I often visited the charming galleries and restaurants inhabiting one of the old trolley barns. It was called Trolley Square (probably still is). All the gay boys shopped there (probably still do). It was a bar without the drinks.
One afternoon, in a remote corner on an upper floor, tucked away from the swishing masses, number one and I stumbled upon an oddly darkened antique/collectibles shop. The ornate lettering on the sign read: Basil’s.
“Oh look,” I said as we stepped over the funereal threshold, “Bay-sill’s.”
“Baaah-zul’s,” bleated the skeleton-thin figure behind the cash register, rising to face us. “It rhymes with dazzles.”
He was a frightening, coroner-esque poof of indeterminate but advancing age, dressed in the same ill-fitting black suit that he may have been wearing as he stepped from the womb. This was the kind of superior-for-no-good-reason homo destined for only one role in life: a model for gay caricaturists.
This one wore his haughty bitterness as a badge of honor.
“Puh-leeze,” he continued, his stick fingers clutching imaginary pearls below the quivering point of his bony jaw line, “for mercy’s sake, why can’t you hicks pronounce my name correctly?”
One plucked eyebrow arched skyward, pointed like a poison arrow tip poised on the quivering drawstring of his forehead and aimed at the target of me. He scanned head to toe.
“From which turnip patch do you hail?”
So much for living amongst my own.
Baaaah-zul’s arrow of scorn drilled a realization through the very heart of my innocence: gays are as disparate a group as any, a family whose shared classification no more guarantees brotherhood than shared DNA does. I recoiled, deflated, somewhat in fear of this apparition but mostly in embarrassment. I was frazzled (rhymes with basil-ed). My ignorance had been illuminated, and my only recourse was to part with more dollars than I could afford for an antique gold and amethyst ring. That showed him. Never mind that the ring was stolen years later one summer afternoon by an English-as-a-second-language laundromat attendant/trick I dragged home for some south-of-the-border adventure. The ring meant little to me and I haven’t really missed it; what has stuck with me is the old queen’s pronunciation lesson. Some things are never forgotten.
The herb Basil (repeat after me: Baaah-zul) is a fast-growing hot weather annual (behaving as a perennial in the absence of winter), originally native to India and parts of Asia but in modern times actively cultivated all over the globe for its culinary prowess. It is in fact difficult to imagine a useful garden plot without a pot or patch of sweet basil. But that’s the opinion of an aging he-whore who finds the fragrance of basil so pheromonal that he is tempted to roll among the plants like some wild sow in heat, smearing himself with a green lust that is guaranteed to reel in a youthful boar.
In more civilized moments I imagine bottling the essence to dab behind my ears come January to ward off winter’s ennui. Apparently I am not alone in this desire: an internet search reveals that Aroma-Pure (of Utah!) will ship ½-ounce of pure basil oil, advertised to strengthen compassion and faith and bring clarity, for a mere $15.75, (roughly the same price as charged for oil of jasmine).
But basil is first and foremost a culinary herb, used in Thai, Italian, Indian, Vietnamese, French, and Chinese foods (just to name a few). We could barge headlong into an argument about the comparable tastiness of these cuisines, but let’s not. I’m working on the concept of compromise these days and I hope we can basically agree that the world of dining would be less inspired in the absence of basil, favorite cuisines aside.
Given its usefulness, it’s fortunate that basil is veritable child’s play to cultivate provided it gets at least a half day of full sun and there is no danger of freezing. Less sun and the plant sits, as stubbornly refusing to flourish as a drag queen who forgot her wig. This show ain’t happening. And even the lightest of frost will blacken the leaves, from which the plant will not recover. Basil is a temperamental and spoiled head-strong lover; cold weather is your opinion. He requires careful tip-toeing, for to dare speak your mind will frost his tenderness.
In temperate climes basil seed can be sown directly in the garden in mid- to late-spring, when freezing is but a disagreeable memory. Thin the sprouts to ten inches apart as they unfurl but don’t despair the uprooting of the hapless children: the whole seedlings, their white rootlets rinsed of soil, add zest to a salad of field greens or layered on crostini with thin slices of plum tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Yummy – almost as refreshing as sex and not nearly as messy.
Northern gardeners should start the plants indoors or under glass (or purchase seedlings at the local nursery), transplanting to a well-drained location with good sun after the babies have four true leaves.
Unlike the corpse-like Baaah-zul of Utah, the herb specimen blends well with others. It offers a refreshing touch of utility to the cottage garden or herbaceous border, the glossy leaves especially complementing the duller foliage of zinnias or the hairy pallor of the sages and lavenders. Basil is also manageable in pots and planters as long as they are not allowed to dry to dust.
Wherever you tend this useful herb, keep the soil moist. If the plant does wilt slightly from inattention (tsk, tsk, Mary…did you forget to pay attention?), it should perk up in short order after watering. A weak application of water-based fertilizer will stimulate growth but be careful; too frequent or too strong an application will cause the leaves to yellow or develop mildew. Otherwise, the only effort necessary is consistent pruning to force bushy growth and prevent blooming.
Too bad relationships aren’t this easy. In fact, the most trying aspect of basil is the inevitable argument over how to pronounce the word: bay-sill or baaah-zul. A previous boyfriend and I knew this one intimately (we won’t mention his chronological number or his name). It became a running jab between us (he is of the pedestrian bay-sill persuasion while I, as we have learned, was pushed toward the more refined baaah-zul). So back and forth we needled. In my most ill-tempered, eyebrow arching moments I wondered if he not only intentionally mispronounced, but ascribed to the ancient Greek’s aversion to basil for its mythical connection to scorpions and all sorts of other unpleasant things. That bastard! Better off without him!
Meanwhile I, like the exalted Hindus of India, know basil to be holy. Nearly as holy as me.
This kind of roller-coaster ride of a silly argument has derailed all of my past relationships. We may have made it over a few peaks, a bit cramped in our little train car but still smelling nothing but the sweet scent of love, when our growing disagreements would slowly turn rancid until the day we awoke to wonder why we sleep next to such an imbecile. Drama, drama, drama . . . then alone again, naturally.
Mr. Current and I assign little value to these linguistic accusations. It helps that he is not a native English speaker, and I don’t (yet) speak Portuguese, so the pronunciation of words is more often an amusement than an argument. We giggle about our linguistic mistakes. And as far as basil goes, we basically follow the lead of the sexy Italians, who proclaim it a symbol of love. Bay-sill, Baah-zul…who cares, let’s make love. Oh those Italians!
I like this resolution, especially given that it is in the presence of love that I discovered the culinary joy of basil.
My friends Freddie and Jonah have been a couple for nearly forty years (since they were in kindergarten, Jonah quips, but I know he misrepresents). We have been the best of friends for nearly as long, bearing witness to each other’s lives in intimate and sometimes sordid detail. Let it suffice to say they have been my saviors an embarrassing number of times, and following one particularly tumultuous train wreck of a romance, I decreed that I would date no one but them. I was half serious, but my insistent sexual cravings (urges best not satisfied with friends) prevented me from following through with the threat. My libido shoved me back out into the world where I continued to inflict my brand of comeuppance on all takers. It wasn’t until the occasion of my dear friends’ twenty-fifth anniversary, which coincided with the twenty-fifth boyfriend to slam the door to his heart in my nagging face, that I began to think I was approaching this relationship thing from the wrong angle. I needed help.
“Tell me your secret,” I begged over dinner with these dear friends, hoisting a forkful of fresh-tossed pesto and farfalle. This is one of Freddie’s specialties and something I learned to crave following a breakup. It became comfort food for me.
“We have no secret,” Freddie replied in his matter-of-fact style.
“Yes we do,” Jonah countered. “We don’t argue.”
“Yes we do.”
“No we don’t.”
I distracted myself with the artistic pattern of the bright green pesto sauce against the cream-colored pasta bow ties, and my mind wandered. Perhaps it – a relationship – isn’t all that easy, I mused.
Or maybe it is, because in the time it took me to have this simple thought, my hosts moved on to another topic and the disagreement about whether or not they disagree faded away. How can this be? Nothing sours in their dealings with each other; no noxious weed stalks their Garden of Good Cheer just waiting for a moment of vulnerability when it can spring forth shouting, “I told you so!”
Like good kindergarteners, they leave their respective sandbox corners to play nice with each other in the middle ground. Their secret, I observe, is that they allow each other to maintain a significant aura of self, yet they each foster a solid sense of their pairing. Me thinks any couple could learn something from these two.
When pressed, Freddie draws a graphic of his concept of a relationship. It is two circles of the same size, slightly overlapped, as if a cranky old typewriter got stuck and tapped the impressions of the two “O’s” in the word “MOON” without proper spacing between them. One “O” is Freddie, and the other “O” is Jonah. Each is wholly contained in his own separate sphere, yet at the intersection of the spheres, one-third of each is handed over to the common goal (the relationship). The other two-thirds remain with the individual. In essence, two people become three identities, and each identity – Freddie, Jonah, the relationship – is worth exactly two-thirds. All carry equal and deserving weight.
Lesson learned, or at least in process. I try to acknowledge that my Mr. Current is more than an extension of me, and regardless of how irrational I believe his habits to be, he is entitled to them. I practice coming out of my corner to meet in the middle and I practice admitting my mistakes. As often as reasonable I use the two most stress-reducing words in the English language. “Yes, dear,” I say, and I try to mean it. So far, so good: almost three years and counting. And we still like each other! Even better, far from feeling negated, as I just knew I would if I released my stranglehold on righteousness, I feel increasingly complete.
Relationships, I am learning, are not a steady line on the graph of life. We peak and we dip, we crest and then we sag. But over time, the slumps and the highs average out to a life better spent with him than one spent without him. As for basil, if the correct pronunciation of this old world aromatic herb is the most serious disagreement a couple ever has, and, trust me, it won’t be, then they should be able to maintain couple hood until the end of days.
Freddie’s Pesto Sauce
3 cups packed fresh basil leaves (removed from stems)
2 large cloves fresh garlic
1/2 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup packed chopped parsley
3/4 cup fresh grated parmesan
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup melted butter
salt to taste (but you definitely need some)
Combine everything in a blender on low, then medium (arrange ingredients so
blender blade will turn efficiently) until all has turned to a smooth paste.
Toss with hot, drained pasta. Mangia bene.