Friday, June 25, 2010

Green Ambrosia

A National Public Radio news bulletin warning that the pernicious fungal disease downy mildew has been ravaging basil in parts of the country has me thinking about pesto, which I regard, along with aioli and sushi, as one of personkind’s most wonderful culinary achievements.

Having grown up on a diet that vividly communicated both my mother’s distaste for cooking and her feeling that if you found an inexpensive restaurant that didn’t give you food poisoning, you should never risk going to another one, ever, I had never encountered pesto before The Kiddo, who’d stopped taking hallucinogens years before, rhapsodized one night about the remarkable green pizza he’d eaten in Westwood Village. The foregoing was such a long sentence that only now am I able to explain that I refer only to my mother’s aversion to the kitchen because in the era of my childhood an American man was no more likely to cook than to kiss another man full on the lips while fondling his buttocks; it was understood to be women’s work, you see. And the safe, inexpensive restaurant to which I refer, as attentive readers will surely recall, was the Chatam (which seemed to lack an h) on Westwood Blvd., whose pretensions to class included having a menu printed in the Olde English typeface.

Those same attentive readers will note that the Italian restaurant where The Kiddo had savored the amazing green pizza was none other than that in which I and the two other members of the 1930 Four had dined the first night I smoked marijuana, and then scooted on the bill. To my considerable relief, they didn’t seem to recognize me (from around a decade before) when I went back to try the green pizza for myself.

Ambrosia, my friends, in the classical sense. Swoon time. Delicious — and sensual! — beyond imagining.

Culinary scholars (now there’s a job I wish existed, and that I’d prepared for) agree that pesto was originally devised in the vicinity of Genova (English speakers don’t like the v, for reasons unknown to me), so Missus the First, to whom I wasn’t yet wed at the time, and I made a beeline for it in the spring of 1982 when we wandered around Italy. We found a very inexpensive, very pleasant pensione — the eyes of whose proprietress said, “If only (the future) Missus the First weren’t with you, big boy, how dolce a vita we could have,” in an alluring accent — and so stayed and stayed and stayed, eating much of the sauce for which the region is known. My impression was that every ristorante, trattoria, and even tavola calda made a gigantic tub of the stuff every morning, but when I requested it one afternoon on a pizza, the proprietor looked at me as though I’d asked him to step on the pizza before baking it. I can only imagine that he was discombobulated by the great allure of my future bride.

A decade and more later, while living in San Francisco’s utterly charmless Sunset district, my daughter and I, on one of our nocturnal traipses, discovered an eerily Chatamesque restaurant with an Olde English menu ‘way up by 19th Avenue, right across Noriega Street from Fujiyama-ya, with its famous florid Irish waiter, which in turn was two doors from the Bashful Bull snack bar with it famous (literally!) rotting moosehead. In a ‘hood as dreary as the Sunset, you find amusement where you can.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? One of the prettiest words in the language, sewage, refers to the most disgusting stuff, and does not Downy (or, better, Downi) Mildew sound like a cheerleader so wholesomely gorgeous that even her seemingly asexual algebra teacher has to hurry each morning to the male faculty restroom for a few minutes' privacy after her class?

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