Just For Good Measure

Photograph by Sarah Commerford, All Rights Reserved 2016

My Aunt Flora was a loving and violent woman. Without heels, she stood majestically at six feet, as if a wooden cooking spoon ran from the base of her delicate skull, right down her brittle spine. Without fail, her fine brown hair was pinned into a French twist, and other than when she was sleeping, she usually wore a gray, fine-ribbed turtle neck, as though trying to conceal her exceptionally long neck. That’s how things were with her — hidden but obvious.

During her frequent and unpredictable bouts of rage, she reclaimed herself by cooking. No one in our family knew the source of her torment; back then, we simply called her inky moods, “The Jangles”, as if they were something melodious to be hummed. But I promise you, they were never that. When they settled in on her, you got out of the way. She took to her bed, blackout shades drawn tight, sometimes for days. Other times she hurled knickknacks across the room, which somehow always got replaced. But never in the kitchen — that room was her heart, as if whatever it was she was missing could be found in the orderly cabinets of her beloved Angel D’Amour dishes, or in her little pantry, stocked floor to ceiling with meticulously hand-labeled glass jars of glossy peaches, sweet pears and stewed tomatoes. If you look beyond the sink, you can see the pantry still, shelves lined with green and white ivy contact paper, window and all.

She claimed she was from France, although I never heard her utter a conversational word of anything resembling French, except when she slowly and lovingly let the names of her favorite dishes glide off her tongue: ‘coq-au-vin’, ‘ fi-let mi-gnon’, or ‘buche no-el’, emphasizing each syllable like adding an extra pinch of salt with flourish and confidence, just for good measure.

If you let your eye wander to the left, you can see a set of steps. That’s where I sat when Aunt Flora was cooking, rapt with devotion, mixed in with a healthy dose of fear. She’d patiently entertain my constant flood of questions, all the while talking me through the process of whatever dish she was preparing, sometimes giving me a coveted job. Rinse, dice, blend, chop, saute, braise, roast. Whatever her fractured mood had been when she started, she was fully and elegantly reconstituted by the time she was done cooking. Of course, her happiness never lasted, but I understood that her expression of affection was through slender green beans, sweet butter, and savory roasted chicken. Soups and stews and were seasoned or finished with heady bouquets of fresh herbs from her garden, efficiently snipped with razor-sharp sheers that hung by the back door. They’re long gone now, but if you look between the kitchen door and the window frame, you can still see the hook that held them at the ready.

That was how Aunt Flora gave the best of herself, and if she were alive today, moving about her clean, white kitchen, fragile and focused, she’d want you to know how to make last-of-summer pesto, because to let perfectly good basil go to waste in a sad fall garden would be unthinkable. Follow her directions — it would make her happy.

Last-of-Summer Pesto

2 bunches of basil, leaves picked, stems discarded — rinsed gently, but thoroughly

1 handful of toasted pine nuts

2–3 cloves of garlic

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 handful of coarsely grated Regiano Parmesan cheese

Pinch of salt

Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor (a mortar and pestle will do as well)

Pulse until coarse (longer if you like a smoother texture)

Adjust for taste, adding more olive oil, a few more pinenuts or cheese

Spoon into an airtight container and cover with a layer olive oil to prevent discoloration

Refrigerate, freeze or serve right away over pasta, or use as a dip for vegetables or crusty bread