Pesto 101

There was a boy in college who decided that he was going to date me. This was long before cell phones so his plan of approach was to show up at my apartment occasionally to charm me. I was generally not home, so he often ended up chatting with my younger sister about how fabulous I was. When he finally actually caught me at home I was rather short when I asked him what he wanted. He mustered up his courage and said that he wanted to make me dinner. I took pity on him and agreed.

Basil

The afternoon of our dinner date he showed up at my apartment again. He was making pesto and didn’t have enough money left to buy a crucial ingredient. He asked to borrow $3 so he could get fresh basil. I was surprised and somewhat annoyed but I gave him the $3.

I had never had a man cook for me before. My father, on the rare occasion when he had to make dinner, was certainly capable of heating up a can of soup or making a sandwich, but not much more.

I went to his rather fabulous but incredibly small studio apartment at the specified time to find him mincing garlic and boiling water in his kitchen. He had gone all out. He plied me first with a bottle of good white wine as he laid out a simple tray of appetizers- a few cheeses with some salami and good crusty bread drizzled with olive oil. Even though I had been working in restaurants for a couple of years, I didn’t know much about food or how it is really prepared. I was intrigued when he pulled out a mortar and pestle and began crushing the garlic with the fresh basil and toasted pine nuts for the pesto. I had never seen anything like it. He was careful and methodical in the way he prepared everything. He took pride in the little things, the way he sliced the bread, the way he slid the spaghetti noodles into a large pot of boiling water, the way he uncorked a second bottle of wine. It was clear that he had been preparing for this evening for some time.

The spaghetti pesto, when we finally sat down to eat it, was perfect. I had never tasted anything that earthy and fragrant. I realized how very much I had to learn about good food.

As my fork swirled bite after bite of the perfect pesto I looked up and saw this boy in a different light. He was no longer just the boy who had been harassing me. I saw passion in him, a passion for food and a passion for life. I wanted some of what he had. I wanted to find my pesto.

I look back now and marvel at the courage it must have taken for him to come to my house and ask for $3 to buy basil. I wonder how he ate for the rest of the week. I wonder if he had to walk to school in North Dakota in the winter instead of taking the bus. At the time I was so self-absorbed that none of these considerations came into my head. I can’t tell you how the evening ended. There may have been an innocent kiss by the end of the night, but I am sure there wasn’t more.

After that night I didn’t have the courage to tell him that I wasn’t interested so my sister ended up having to explain that I didn’t want to see him again. From what I understand there was some crying and some shots of tequila involved while she consoled him about his loss. It didn’t matter to me.

I realize now the gift he gave me that night, in showing me the passion that can be associated with food. I went on to work in some of the finest restaurants in the country and learn a lot about food. I’ve also had the great fortune of having a number of fabulous men cook for me.

I see now that I owe that boy a great debt. Not for the attention that he paid to me, there were plenty of boys at the time to do that, but for taking the time to show me what true passion looked like. By showing me his passion for food he opened me up to believing that I could and I would find that kind of passion for myself.

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