Saturday, March 10, 2018

That Pesto Blog

When my mom didn’t call, or send a card, on my birthday last August (said the Leo), it was clear something was up. She had a decades-long track record of on-time birthday cards, so the next day I called to see whether her normally remarkable memory was failing her, or whether it was something I’d said…but she confessed, she just hadn’t had the energy--she didn’t want to worry me, but she was experiencing a bit of a health condition.

Every time (I realize that sounds like an exaggeration but it’s not) my mom and I hang up the phone, from the early 80’s until practically the other day, my mom mentions food. I’d say, “I’ve got to go…” and she’d say, “I thought I’d make a lasagna, so I’m defrosting a pound of ground beef,” or “I wish you could have been here for breakfast. I made hash browns from last night’s potatoes.” When I pointed her habit out, about 20 years ago, she said, surprised, “I do?” which was amusing in the way that two other remarks of hers had been amusing: one, at dinner with my dad in 1981, when the waiter asked for clarification on my mom’s order, and she replied, “Just bring me whatever you want. I’m not fussy.” My dad and I said, amused, “But you’re the fussiest person I know!” And that was true. At least around food. She was very food-fussy. And her other amusing remark was, also directed to me and my dad, at some other time and some other restaurant, “Oh, you know how much I hate to talk on the phone.” And my dad and I both said, amused, “But you are always on the phone! You love to talk on the phone!” Introspection and self-reflection were not two of my mom’s passions. Food, and talking on the phone, however, were.

So she didn’t call me on my birthday, and of course I could have called her on my own birthday but that seemed confrontational, accusational, and on my call the following day I put her on speaker so my daughter Lily, the great generational buffer, could generationally buffer us. My mom said she felt so weak from her unnamed health condition that she would “probably never cook again,” which (though it turned out to be true) was quite frankly unthinkable, so I whispered to Lily, “What about pesto?!

“Not even pesto?” my often-obedient daughter inquired. My mom hesitated, then said quietly that she’d try to make Lily some pesto. She had been sending my daughter a few jars of pesto a year since she was two years old--and had sent it to me for years, before Lily was born. Twenty-seven years of pesto, in Mason jars. We bought pesto at Whole Foods and we ordered it at restaurants and we tried boutique food shops, but my mom’s pesto was quite simply better. Because the necessary volume of basil was expensive, her husband planted basil in their garden. (Parmesan was expensive too, not to mention pine nuts, but there was no hack for them.)

A couple weeks later, a large box from Amazon arrived, addressed to Lily, quite surely an accident because the several packages a week we receive from Amazon are always small. It seemed like a big-ass hassle to return whatever it accidentally was, so the box sat near our front door for several days until the next time I spoke to my mom. We exchanged news, and I mentioned that I had to hang up, when my mom said (because this is when she discusses all things food), “Tell Lily that she can always substitute walnuts for the pine nuts, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for her to consider growing her own basil,” and I had an epiphany: OH! My mom had sent Lily a food processor because she thinks she’s going to DIE! And what is her first thought? “Who is going to make Lily’s pesto?”

So, like the scratch on Barrett’s car that he really didn’t care about, my mom sending Lily a food processor was actually a random clue to the Universe, and to her smaller universe that was the two of us, that her life was nearing its end.

The week after my mom died, I was relieved, numb, and a bit guilty…for not feeling sadder. I had to convince people that I was ok—because I was ok. My mom’s death fit into the order of the universe (as opposed to when Lily’s dad died and we were shattered, because it didn’t fit into the order of the universe). Then, too, Lily felt guilty—“Mom, when I’m happy I feel like I should be sad, and when I’m sad, I feel like my dad would want me to be happy,” she’d said, at the time, and my best advice was just feel what you feel when you feel it and know that the feeling is temporary—and that was my best advice to myself, too: just feel what you feel; you don’t have to feel worse than you feel. “Everyone grieves in their own way,” Lily told me, wise in the way that a kid whose universe was shattered when she was 15 can be.

The second week after my mom died, the week after I felt relieved and numb, I had a craving…was it for the sublime ginger chocolate chip cookies from the gluten free bakery? Was it for pretzels? Popcorn from the Music Box? Was it for curried lentil soup? I even wondered: was it for pesto? My mind scanned the food world on and off for two days, but I had a vague food-itch that just couldn’t be scratched. Maybe a Jade Oolong tea, or a Bourbon County beer, or Aztec hot chocolate? 

On the third day, I had an epiphany. The vague emptiness inside me wasn’t actually a food craving; it was a vague emptiness where my mother once was, and of course no food, no person or situation or event, could or would ever fill that space.  But the fact that it was a food craving, or expressed itself as a food craving even though it had nothing to do with actual food, was crazy-noteworthy, since my mother had always expressed her love through food--like most mothers, of course, but even more so than most because 1. she had also been a caterer and wrote a food column in her local newspaper, and 2. she really didn’t express love in the usual non-food ways. She wasn’t crazy about being touched, or making declarations of affection; she was all about cooking—I mentioned that in her obituary

This past Thanksgiving, two months after my mom forgot my birthday (said the Leo), I was assigned a very specific traditional cranberry relish that my foodie friend gave me the specific recipe for. Another friend was over, and we were going to make cranberry relish with Lily’s pesto-processor…because we could, because we had one now. The recipe called for pieces of orange to be put in the food processor—but is peeling implied, in a recipe? It didn’t say to peel them first. Did the recipe really call for oranges with the peels on them? My friend Elizabeth, who has a PhD, and I, the editor of another friend's recipe blog, pondered and decided that, as it was Thanksgiving, and I should call my mom anyway, it was best to call that second.

“Leave the peels on,” said my mom. “And put a cinnamon stick in it,” she added—one of those things she just does, that are not in a recipe, one of those things she would never tell anyone, if they asked her for her cranberry relish recipe, because strictly speaking the cinnamon stick was not part of the recipe per se. She enjoyed the phrase "per se." As I was hanging up, my friend whispered, “Tell her how grateful you are that she has so much cooking knowledge!” I did.

“But what is going to become of all of it?” my mom lamented—and she really did lament this, with a tear in her voice, on Thanksgiving, two months after she had sent Lily the food processor. And it was true: she never cooked anything that wasn’t staggeringly good. It was her gift. It was how she showed her love. She sniffed.

“I just made your mom cry,” my friend said, in the background, slightly amused and inappropriately proud. This was the only worry my mom had expressed aloud about her impending death: what would become of her cooking tips?

What indeed would become of her cooking tips? She really did have every answer to every cooking question anyone had ever asked her. I made an effort to reassure her that Lily’s first attempt at pesto was successful, that Lily embodied every quality of hers that had skipped a generation, like the ability to set a lovely table, interior-design all her friends’ rooms, apply makeup, and walk like a model.

A few days after my mom died, my daughter called me from her new life in L.A.

“I’m going to get a tattoo, in memory of Grandma Bobbie!” she announced.

“Dude,” I said, in feeble protest.

“Help me decide what to get!” she persisted. I persisted in dissuading her: my mom would absolutely hate that idea, I said. A tattoo. Just no. She’d hate it!

“I know!” Lily said, “It’s so ironic!”

She settled on a basil leaf. I had lost the tattoo battle long ago, but I’m always happy to be consulted. A small basil leaf on the back of her arm, above her elbow--could be far worse.

Lily suggested I share the pesto recipe in my mom’s obituary (an inspired idea, until I saw the price of obituaries per word), and it is indeed a fantastic recipe, a staple of my refrigerator for 25 years, a recipe everyone should have…but not so fast. While my mother loved to hear people raving about her food, and while she would indeed share a recipe on occasion, I am actually not so certain she would want everyone in the world to have Bobbie’s Pesto recipe. Because it’s hers. Being her daughter could be complicated. It still is: how do I do what’s best for the cooks and eaters of the world, while honoring my mother’s memory, while not allowing the other cooks to have all the accolades?

I don’t have to honor the part of my mother that would leave the cinnamon stick out when sharing the cranberry relish recipe--I can use my own sense of consciousness to polish our lineage with some generosity of spirit. What a relief to see the human insecurities my mom once embodied gently dissipating, revealing more and more of who she truly was: “exceptional,” said my dad, whom she had divorced when she was 64, after 40 years (exceptional in his own way for even being able to see my mom, who left him when he was 72). Indeed she was. While striving for perfection for all her misguided human reasons, she had indeed been exceptional. The Divine Mirror that she is for me now is being polished through the lens of death.

“Why does everyone say only positive things about someone after they die?” my daughter asked me, ever so long ago.

I see how petty grievances and long-held resentments are so irrelevant in the mirror of physical death. Our minds are free to see the departed Other in the highest light; the survivors are lit up and reminded of their own humanity and concurrent divinity, when they think of their dearly departed. My mother is now a soul, so I see her soul. It’s so simple. It’s so effortless. The challenge is seeing it while our loved ones are still alive.

So as a tribute to my mom, one that I think maybe she would like—certainly more than a basil leaf tattoo—here is her fantastic pesto recipe. I’m pretty sure these are ALL the ingredients, but we’ll never know.



Grandma Bobbie’s Pesto 

1 cup basil leaves 

¼ cup minced parsley
½ cup olive oil 
4 Tbs freshly grated parmesan
2 Tbs pine nuts* 
3-4 cloves garlic
½ tsp salt, or to taste
¼ tsp white pepper 

Place all ingredients except olive oil in bowl of processor and process till well chopped, then drizzle in the olive oil. Process till fairly smooth. Pour in jar and cover with 1/4 inch oil to preserve. Refrigerate (or freeze).


*Toast pine nuts a bit. Don’t tell my mom I told you.


Pesto Butter: Blend 3 Tbs pesto with 1 stick softened butter. Use on garlic toast, steamed vegetables, or popcorn.


Pesto Salad Dressing: Blend 6 Tbs pesto with 1/3 cup wine vinegar, 2/3 cup olive oil, and an additional clove of crushed garlic. Shake well in covered jar to blend. 











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