Basil, Language, & A Myth or Two

Once upon a time there was a farmer whose name was Rod. Rod was a pilot who also happened to be an organic farmer. He grew 100% grass fed beef, pastured pork, chickens and eggs, greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers, and basil. Oh, and satisfying delicious flax cookies. At the Regina Farmer’s Market, which during the winter was held at a small community centre in the Cathedral District, Rod’s booth was right beside the one that I worked at. At first sighting, he instantly reminded me of a liberal version of my father. A little too opinionated and a little too forward you could tell that some customers didn’t know how to take him. Was he joking or was he being serious? Should you be offended or should you laugh? Rod was a proud farmer. Although, having said that I don’t know if I’ve ever met a farmer who wasn’t proud. I guess when the time comes and your truck has broken down and a crop has failed and the bank is knocking at your door it’s always good to hold on to something. Anyway, Rod was proud. His products were always more than what they appeared. His tomatoes weren’t just tomatoes. They were juicy and flavourful and were what tomatoes used to be like, not the hard, cardboard tasting ones we’ve become accustomed to. However, it was in talking about one item, in particular, when his tone would get a little lighter and a little more earnest, and that item was basil.

Rod would often have around ten little ziploc bags full of freshly cut sweet basil to sell. On the days when they didn’t sell out he would give me one. Almost every time he’d tell me, “I love basil. Sometimes I even put a little under my pillow so I can go to sleep smelling it.” Rod would always insist that I take good care of the basil he gave me, “Tuck a little moist paper towel in the bag, and never put it in the fridge. Ever.” This week’s episode is: Basil, Language, & a Myth or two.

I didn’t really grow up with herbs. As I mentioned in previous podcasts, my mom was a good cook. Full disclosure, my dad was a nonexistent cook. His idea of cooking was slapping together a sandwich. Two slices of bread, relish, mustard, and pickled herring was all he needed. My mom certainly dabbled in her spice drawer from time to time, although some of those spice bottles looked like they had been sitting there for a while and turned into hard clumps in a jar. Once late spring hit, my mom would put together a planter of herbs–sweet basil, thai basil, parsley, thyme, and rosemary. It smelled great, but I don’t ever remember using it. They remained in their pot, never picked, never pinched, never sprinkled. Perhaps, our lack of herbs was a side-effect of a Northern European diet, or perhaps a Northern European diet that had been cut and removed from some of its fundamental properties.  We were a family of Dutch immigrants and our food reflected more a need for sustenance than enjoyment. Meat and Potatoes were what we ate, and there was no need to fancy it up. Or, perhaps, it would be more apt to say that there was no thought that there was a need to fancy it up. The perfect word to describe this type of food is bland, and bland is the exact opposite of flavour.

It can be argued that the first time I ate basil was the first time I appreciated flavour. Basil has a subtle peppery flavour and smells entirely fresh, as if the wind has blown a thousand flowers towards you. Basil dances with your senses. It transforms food. From pizza, pasta, ice cream, pesto, curries, salads, food is often better with basil then without. It’s transformative effect on food and the people eating it is almost magical. In a way, all herbs, have this ability. The intensity of their flavour and their fragrance turns basic sustenance into what food should be. And in doing so has an impact that goes far beyond food.

There are three words. The first word is Basilisk. In “Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets”, the second installment in the series, the book ends with Harry Potter battling the Basilisk, a monstrous snack-like creature that can either kill you with his poisonous venom or kill you by simply making eye contact. The Basilisk wasn’t the figment of J.K Rowling’s imagination, on the contrary the Basilisk has been apart of European Mythology for a millennia or two. Literary references to Basilisks are found in the Bible, Shakespeare, and some 18th century literary works which I won’t bore you with. The Basilisk was known as the “King of Serpents” and is from the Greek word “basiliskos” which means “little king.” The second word is Basilica. Basilica is a word to describe a type of early Christian church. These Christian churches tend to have similar architectural motifs. At one end, the entrance, at the other a semi-circle known as an apse where the altar sits. Basilica is derived from the Greek word “basilike oikia” which means “royal house.”   What is fascinating about language is that the words we use can act as clues to the past. They reveal relationships and commonalities that we otherwise wouldn’t think exists.The third word is Basil. Basil is derived from the Greek word basiliskos which means “kingly.” Three words used to classify a snake, a church, and a herb. What binds them together is their royal status. Basil is not just a regular herb it is “The King of Herbs.” However, the Basilisk and the Basilica are also representative of how the Basil has been shaped within our culture. They represent binary opposites, good and evil, heaven and hell, that are linked by a thread, and throughout our cultural history they have pulled Basil into different directions. At different times and different places Basil has been both demonized and canonized.

Basically, since the time the first herbalist was roaming about, Basil has always been associated with snakes and scorpions, and some not so positive conditions. The ancient Greeks believed that Basil caused madness and often alluded to poverty by picturing a woman staring at a basil plant.  It is thought that the connection with Scorpions and Snakes, which were closely linked to the mythical  basilisk,  is due to the simple fact that both the plant and animals enjoy warm, sunny places, and one can often be found with the other. There were ancient tales that warned people that if they crushed and smelled a Basil leaf that Scorpions would breed in their brains.  Or, if you crushed basil with two stones and then placed a glass container over it that you could create a Scorpion. In general, there was no limit to one’s imagination and folks created many scenarios in which a basil plant made scorpion babies.

 

On the other hand, for others, Basil represented the exact opposite. Really, I’ve never met a plant that involved so many contradictions. In this case, Basil was more synonymous with it’s name, a herb because of its sweet fragrance, that was fit for royalty. Those who had high esteem for the plant, perhaps connected Sweet Basil with its cousin, Holy Basil or otherwise known as Tulsi Basil, in India. Holy Basil is honoured as a sacred plant by Hindus, who place the plant before their doorways to drive away evil spirits. The spiritual connections continue with stories of Basil springing up along the path Jesus was forced to take during his Crucifixion. Everywhere a drop of his blood fell to the ground a sprig of basil bloomed. Throughout Persia, Malaysia, and Egypt basil is placed at the graves, a part of a ritual to send loved ones off to the next life. Basil can also be a symbol of love and friendship. In Moldavia, Italy, and Portugal basil is given as a token of one’s devotion.

One can really be unsure of why Basil has forever been portrayed amongst a myriad of contradictions. How can one herb represent poverty and royalty, the devil and God? Perhaps, contradictions happen randomly and without thought, the same way language comes about, maybe. And, perhaps, it depends on who is telling the tale. To me, Basil, with its peppery taste and sweet fragrance, can transform something that is bland into something that is flavourful and wonderful. It brings joy to food. For others, perhaps there is something valuable within the blandness, and one not need be tempted by a scent or flavour.

It is a lovely thing to visit my parents now. What once was untouched herbs in a planter has transformed into large mint plants in the garden and fresh herbs on the table. Herbs are enjoyed and appreciated. They are experimented with and played with. Maybe, a sign that a deeper connection is occurring between us and our sustenance.