Aug 20, 2013

Basil in the rain

The rain had been hesitating all day. The sky was darkly overcast, but not a drop had fallen. Even the birds seemed to have given up on it. A kind of sullen gloom seemed top pervade the atmosphere as the weather teetered on the edge as if deciding which way to fall.

The porch steps creaked as I descended to the backyard with a pair of scissors and a jar. I knelt by the back of the vegetable garden where a few cilantro plants had decided to give up on life and wither. I stripped the dried stems into my hat then sorted out and discarded the leaves leaving the coriander seed. I scattered some on the ground hoping for another harvest before fall and tipped the rest into the jar. As I screwed on the top, I felt the first drops of rain.

I pulled up the cilantro, took it over to the compost pile and went back for the jar and scissors. I was in no rush to get out of the rain, it had been a hot, muggy morning and the cool drops were a relief, so I stood for a moment trying to decide if I had the ambition to make myself a tomato and basil sandwich for lunch. The rain increased in intensity and my shirt was plastered to my body. I just stayed there enjoying it and remembering when I was a child, living in Vermont.

We lived on a 150 acre farm (50 acres of meadow and field and 100 of woodlot) in an old white farmhouse near the crest of a hill near Craftsbury. There was a spring, an apple orchard, a raspberry patch, a currant patch, and wild blueberries along the woodlot fence.

The spring was a little higher on the hill than the house and the water supply was good, but my mother, with her unique approach to thrift, decided that rainstorms were showers and not to be wasted. Whenever the storm clouds started to gather, she would have us strip to our underwear or less, give each of us a bar of Ivory soap and chase us out of the house.

My brother and sister and I would stand in the dooryard, and lather up then rinse off and go stand under a nearby silver maple until Mama felt like letting us back in. Even in the middle of summer, mountain rains are cold and we'd usually turned pale blue with chattering teeth by the time we got back inside.

To this day, a summer rain brings with it the memory of the smell of Ivory soap.

So there I was standing by the garden as the rain pounded down on my balding head and trickling down my body to sneak beneath my waist band and continue to the ground. I tucked to scissors into my back pocket and was about to turn back to the porch when a wall of scent hit me. Planted next to the cilantro were five huge sweet basil plants, and the raindrops pummeling their leaves had released some of their essential oils. An almost palpable fog of basil odor rose from them and surrounded me.

I'm sure that you know the smell of basil, the rich, green, spicy aroma is one of the most distinctive and pleasurable of the herbs. It improves and intensifies the taste of so many vegetables without overwhelming their own flavors. Salads made of any of the nightshades (tomato, eggplant, potato, bell pepper, etc.) are almost always the better for basil.

There are many sensual pleasures; the sting of chilis, the resinous taste of sage, The earthiness of cumin and caraway. To derive the intensity of their flavor you have to act on them; grind them, roast them, fry them, brew them. bite them chew them. Basil doesn't bother with that. It will come to you on a breeze under the moon, as you brush by on your way to harvest the chard, or it will rise to you in a mist that your mind wants to color green.

One of the most intense and overwhelming sensual pleasures that a plant can provide is when you stand next to a garden full of basil in the rain.

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