Standing in Gap khakis by the stove and mashing basil leaves and toasted pine nuts in the bronze-colored mortar and pestle I inherited, while listening to Vivaldi on FM 99.5 classical radio, I reminded myself of my dad in a somewhat comforting way.
The pesto I was making came from a Williams-Sonoma recipe, and I now know why most store-bought pesto that comes in those plastic tubs near the “fresh” instant pasta is so green: it doesn’t contain enough pine nuts by volume. Because when I was done, the pesto – while perhaps not as uniform in tone as I had expected – was predominantly beige, not dark green as those tubs of pesto are. (One odd downside was that the only brand of pignolli at Crosby’s was a “Product of China.” Is nothing sacred?)
The pesto was the good part. The pasta was not. The recipe called for trofiette, which is slightly curly, and tends to hold the pesto well. My grocery store sells t-shirts that have the town name emblazoned on them – Hamilton – and the year it was incorporated: 1793. Yet no pasta more adventuresome that fusilli was to be found.
Dad would almost always listen to classical music in the kitchen at 50 East 96th Street. He grew up on jazz and swing and went to a bunch of Benny Goodman concerts as a young man. This would have been in the late 1930s, when he was 17 or 18, coming in from Babylon, Long Island, no doubt via the LIRR to Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall. He had scads of 16 rpm LP’s of the good ol’ days, and I remember one he played for me was of Huddie Ledbetter, otherwise known as “Lead Belly,” a folk and blues 12-string guitarist. In January 1918, Lead Belly was imprisoned for murder and, it was said, only served two years of his term in large part for writing a song that appealed to the religious values of the Governor, who arranged for his release.
But when I asked my dad why he didn’t listen to jazz on the radio, he’d say, “I know jazz. I don’t know classical.” So, after years of this – we’re talking my whole life, pretty much, although he did play Helen Reddy at times when I was a kid, which is even more scary to recall than the fact that my first favorite band was the Bay City Rollers – he still felt the desire to listen to a music form he didn’t understand everything about.
He’d stand there in the galley-like kitchen in thread-bare khakis and a faded yellow button-down shirt, also threadbare and undoubtedly purchased at the St. George Episcopal Church thrift store on East 16th Street, stirring…something…on the stovetop, for dinner. I’d be talking with Karen while we were dating in 1995-97 and she’d tell me what she had for dinner and ask me what I had. And…I was never really sure. I mean, I knew that what was contained on the plate before me at night was a collection of once-discrete food items that had different specific and legitimate origins – some from the sea, some from land, some from the air, and some were perhaps made in a factory – but once compiled and presented together after my father’s efforts, they often didn’t have a recognizable Collective Identity.
I was rarely able to name my meal.
So Karen always found that humorous and we, to this day, laugh about it. It is now family folklore.
Yet Dad did experiment a lot. And he tried to learn about things that were unfamiliar.