Alan was a foodie when we first met. He was on a first name basis with many chefs and food writers, and often got invited to restaurant openings and events. He used the word “fine” to describe a class of foods I’d never met: a fine wine, a fine bread, a fine cheese. I, on the other hand, didn’t really know what the word “foodie” meant. It sounded more made-up than pretentious, like a kindergartener struggling to describe a short-order cook.
When we moved to the farm and he planted his garden, he included foods I’d never eaten before. Some I’d heard of and avoided, and some were altogether new – rainbow quinoa, millet, and kohlrabi. And even more oddly to me at the time, he planted multiple varieties of the same thing. Why do you need twelve kinds of tomatoes, I’d ask naively. They’re different, he’d insist. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. Varieties were like siblings. They might look a bit alike, but their personalities were different.
Some varieties he planted just for fun – like the traveler tomatoes that grew in small pouches and popped like corn kernels when you ate them. Or glass corn, which didn’t taste very good at all, but sported beautiful translucent orange, blue, and purple kernels. We never did figure out how to dry and pick the minuscule millet grains from their feathery fronds, so we left them just as they were, rows of edible adornment waving graciously across our back field.
I remember discovering many years ago that there are over 20,000 varieties of rice. Industrial agriculture means that only a few dozen are ever grown, and only a handful end up in the store. There are thousands of varieties of mangoes, and the bananas we eat are not even the ones that taste the best – they just happen to travel well.
Because of this, I think Alan basically sees the grocery store as a gatekeeper that only lets a few foods through at a time. There may be lots of colorful boxes inside, but they’re all made from the same handful of ingredients. If you want true choice, I suspect he believes, you have to grow it yourself.
And so he did. There were grape, black cherry, blueberry, and pear, mortgage-lifters, Ninevahs, and Granny Cantrells. And those were just the tomatoes. I learned the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – differences, and the best occasion to use each. Simmer the Cantrells slowly into sauce, but slice the Ninevahs and eat them fresh. Fold the grapes and pears into a morning omelet, and toss the black cherries whole onto a bright green salad. They each had their own taste, and each had their place. All fine tomatoes indeed.
And the potatoes, so many I could have never imagined. Alan grew two varieties of purple potatoes alone, one a plump round that was the darkest violet inside, and the other a Peruvian fingerling whose purple interior was swirled with white. There were butter yellows, russet reds, and a few varieties of sweet potatoes in varying shades of orange. The pink ladies were my favorite, the color of a watermelon inside. They were juicy and bright when cut, and crisp when shredded into hash. I learned why the French call them pomme de terre: a fresh potato from the earth is just as crisp and juicy as an apple.
The more he grew, the more my perspective shifted. I began to see the grocery store as a stern schoolmaster, and me as a belligerent child. Who were they to tell me what I could and couldn’t have? And what kind of store was it anyway, that only sold white potatoes? I would defiantly color mine purple.
Slowly but surely I began to turn into a foodie, and leave my non-farm friends behind. As the oregano swelled from a small herb into a shrub, I cut a wad of it and gave it to a friend, along with some heirloom strawberries I’d picked the night before. She took the strawberries, but scrunched her nose at the oregano. What do you do with it? she asked doubtfully. Before I could list the litany of uses, another friend piped up dismissively – It’s for tomato sauce. Like you put on spaghetti. She frowned.
I wanted to tell her it wasn’t that kind of oregano, to launch into a discussion about siblings and personalities. But I thought better of it. I would only likely get myself into a fine mess, so I kept my mouth shut and shoved it back in my pocket.
As the garden grew, so did my knowledge and appreciation. I learned to identify all the foods by their colorful patterning: chiogga beets with their peppermint candy insides, rainbow chard with its hot pink and orange stems, Russian garlic streaked with purple and red, and French pumpkins studded with bumps that looked like discarded peanut shells. All of them beautiful and glorious and bright, and none of them ever like their brother.
But for as much as my appreciation began to grow, there were stubborn parts where I dug in my heels. Colored my food politely but adamantly within the lines. And so it was with the basil.
Alan planted four kinds – sweet basil, the kind that I like, and three other useless varieties. We made the sweet basil into pesto, ate it on tomato sandwiches, chopped it into pasta, and used it as a garnish on nearly everything else. The flavor was bright and green and fresh, like the brilliant summer days during which it flourished. Alan would pick the odd basils too, but I always shoved them aside – not for this meal. Maybe next. He’d toss a pinch of Thai basil onto my plate and nudge me to give it a try, but I’d stubbornly resist. It tasted weird. I couldn’t get past it.
By the end of October as the garden was drawing to a close, Alan walked in with a bushel basket full of Thai basil. You have to do something with it, he insisted. He’d grown it from seed, so he wasn’t letting it go to waste. The basil ball was in my court now. But there was just so much of it. I didn’t know where to begin.
I crushed a leaf and gave it a sniff. It smelled a bit like anise. I scrunched my nose. I suppose I could make a tea of it… I like a good cup of tea, but I have my favorites. I threw a few leaves into a cup and poured some hot water over them and let it all steep. It wasn’t too bad, admittedly. I sipped it that evening. The tiniest fraction of Alan’s harvest had been put to use, but at least it was something. I made another cup before I went to bed, this time with a slice of ginger. I nodded in approval. A fine cup of tea indeed.
I awoke the next morning at the crack of dawn and blinked my eyes. Life was happy and bright and full of possibilities. Alan looked at me bleary-eyed as I marveled about the wonders of the world and what the day would behold. As I looked at him looking at me with a wary look on his face, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d slept like a baby. I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. I sat down in the chair where I’d sat the night before and picked up the now empty cup and peered inside.
Nah, I dismissed the thought before it had time to form in my head. It was just basil. And not even the good kind.
I forgot about the basil and got to work. So much to do, and I did it all that day. I was a well-rested, well-oiled machine, building things and getting stuff done and crossing lines off my to do list like a hibachi chef. I was on. When my work day was done, I transformed into a domestic goddess, washing bedding and feeding dogs while simultaneously making dinner. All the plates were in the air, and spinning perfectly. The dinner plate hit the table the exact moment Alan stepped in the door.
He looked at me cautiously, like the dogs do when they’re not sure whether or not to trust someone. But then he shrugged and sat down to a fine meal.
I had a cup of basil tea again that evening, and then another. The next morning I awoke bright and early and rested. By then I was convinced there was something in that cup. I didn’t know what, but I knew I liked it. I started drinking it throughout the day. I was decidedly less productive, but it was all good. The day’s stress rolled off me like water over a spillway. I felt like a Zen master. And mostly I needed a nap.
I looked it up online that evening. Thai basil’s other name was Tulsi, “the Incomparable One”. Nicknamed holy basil for all of its uses. Word has it that Ayurvedic masters revere it, tending to their plants with great care and reverence. I scrolled through a list of its wonders. Like everything on the internet, it promised cures for everything from cancer to kidney stones. But there it was floating among the gangrene and gingivitis: “Promotes relaxation. Use it to create a calm demeanor and reduce stress. And get a great night’s sleep.”
I took stock of the basil. I was burning through it like an addict. I surveyed the clipped leaves now wilting in the bushel basket and calculated how long they’d last. I begged Alan for more. He promised to pick whatever was left, which wasn’t much.
We went to the food coop that weekend, a grocery that specializes in food from farmers. The only store I’d ever seen sell purple potatoes like ours. As I was wandering down my favorite isle – the one with all the homemade soaps and balms and lotions – I saw it. My basil. Right there in a bottle. I slowly turned it over in my hand as I scrutinized the label, wondering which of its mystical properties it was being sold for. And then I saw the price tag. Sixty-five dollars?!! Holy basil. I quickly put it back on the shelf.
I went home and implored Alan to dig up the remaining plants. He put them into pots and brought them into the house where he could tend to them like an Ayurvedic master, keeping them alive so I could get my fix. But just know, I told him, that if they die, I’m shelling out the sixty-five bucks. It’s a small price to pay for a great night’s sleep.