When my friend Greg was sick, I asked him if he liked pesto.
His eyes brightened. He told me how he loved making pesto himself in the summer, how he loved smelling the basil. â€œYou can smell the sun in every taste.â€?
Here was the man in charge of Human Resources at the university where we worked, a numbers man, spouting poetry, provoked by one word: pesto. I might as well have said presto.
I used to believe in eating pesto only in the summer months when the basil is fresh. But then we got a freezer. Now there are 20, sometimes 91 bags of pesto in our freezer at any given time. Pesto is my special dinner-in-a-bag for family and friends. It’s better to freeze than zucchini bread, tomato soup or squash casserole because pesto is GREEN. I’ve seen that green mush help with colds, post-partum depression, even loneliness. Even though the green becomes a darker shade the longer it sits freezing, you can still taste summer in the middle of February.
I made a fresh batch for Greg.
I cut the basil from our garden, and then sat at the kitchen sink pinching and rinsing the leaves.
My equipment serves as my measuring method. A salad spinner full of basil leaves, takes so many cloves of peeled garlic, coarse sea salt, ground pepper, roasted pine nuts, good olive oil, and freshly grated parmesan cheese, turning the mixture into something like cream.
When you’ve made something for so long, it becomes habit, and in that way you can think more carefully about whom you’re making the pesto for — the funny, bright baseball fanatic, the dog lover and racket ball champion, the deck builder-colleague and friend who believes in living life to its fullest.
When I called, there was family at Greg’s house. I said I would drop something by and leave it at the door. I added pasta and extra cheese for sprinkling, a mason jar full of zinnias and fresh basil, just to smell.
Greg died of pancreatic cancer about a month later on a beautiful sunny day in September at his home with his wife and family nearby. He was 58.
Sometimes I think about the old women in Genoa, Italy with their marble mortars and wooden pestles pounding out their own, better concoctions with real European pine nuts and the kinds of cheeses you can’t get in Evansville, Indiana. I wonder who and what they meditate over as they work.
Even though I know my pesto is hardly the best and won’t cure anything or solve big world problems, making it and eating it helps in both the summer and in the winter. I still believe in the power of pesto.