How to Grow Basil

How to Grow Basil

How to Grow Basil 750 500 Caroliena Cabada

It starts with a three-tiered cutting of basil, passing delicately over the farmstand table from his gloved hands to her ungloved ones. “Put this in water, and let me know when it starts to grow roots.”

So she fills a cleaned-out twelve-ounce jam jar with tap water and places the basil in her bedroom window where it gets full sun every day. When she wakes, it’s to the sight of the thin leaves, backlit and luminous, their verdant, sun-hot scent filling her nose. Every morning unlocks the memory of him holding the leaves out to her, telling her in a low voice what makes this basil different. She had inhaled, so deep the smell of the soil on his glove intermingled.

Roots, spindly and spiky, grew from the stem. That same week she carries the glass jar back to the market in both hands to show him the beginnings of growth. “When they’re an inch or two long, it’s time to plant them,” he says, holding the glass jar at eye level. “Remember to keep the water up. Thai basil is not like sweet basil. It’s thirstier.”

Every morning and every night she keeps her eye on it. And when she’s away during the day, she leaves her mind with it. Her coworkers tell her she seems a little distracted. She replies that she’s fine, thinking instead of how the tips of the bottom leaves have started to brown and curl. They fall, dying, into the water. But a new spiral of budding leaves emerges from the top. “It’s okay,” he says, plucking the brown ones from the surface, “it’s the new sprouts that matter anyway.”

When the roots reach the bottom of the jar, he holds out his hand and offers right then, in the middle of the market, to take her to a pottery store a few blocks away. “Our first date, if you want it.” And he says it so shyly that she wants so much, takes his hand and allows herself to be led to a store with a seedling for a sign, no overhead lights. Just the cool, spring sunshine through the window.

She runs her hands over the fine-grain surface of each pot, deliberating and drawing out the moment. She settles on a classic terra cotta the color of his skin, with a body that tapers down into a matching base. He pays, and back outside, they weave through the market to the compost stand. He hands over two smooth dollar bills for a bag of soil, and they go back to her place to replant the basil.

And it grows. The plant moves out of her bedroom and into the kitchen, and he moves into both spaces. For a time she wakes up to the smell of eggs, oily and salty, and the brown-sweet scent of caramelizing onions. He makes better use of her closet-sized kitchen than she ever did. And though she thinks she’s being sneaky, watching him silently, he turns around to her, holding spoon over hand. “Taste this; tell me what you think.”

Weeks pass, the plant grows bigger, and new stems shoot up from the soil. He buys compost from the market to sprinkle around the plant base, and she waters it faithfully every morning before work. Her coworkers lean in over her lunch, sniffing hungrily. They smile and tell her that she looks so happy. She grins and shares the recipe he taught her.

They make it through a sweltering summer this way, with the windows open so that a tepid breeze can blow through the apartment. The scent of basil (and soy sauce and sesame oil, rice noodles softened and then fried with egg) spills out onto the fire escape, never lingering. He brings in new ingredients on the weekends, sets them down on the wooden counter and dissects them with a chef’s knife. Here, the edible leaves. There, the tough, woody stem that’s better used ground up and dissolved into hot soups. The peels can be eaten; crisp them in the oven to make chips. The seeds should be discarded; even baked and dried they are bitter, and sugar does nothing to save them.

The basil outgrows two more pots by the time it gets too cold to leave the windows open. When he cooks, she can smell it at the bottom of the stairs, and though her stomach rumbles with craving, it’s roiling with dread. The sourness of the fish bone broth, the vinegar sauce, condenses in the closed space and seeps into everything: the couch, her clothes, the pillows. The more delicious the meal, the more potent its odors. Her coworkers lean away from her, her floral perfume not quite covering the memory of last night’s dinner.

She eats what he makes hungrily, tastes the basil from the windowsill before biting into a whole peppercorn forgotten in the broth. Her tongue shrivels, her mouth burns. He pours her a glass of milk to help her wash out the taste, and it’s with the ghostly memory of the pepper still lingering that she says, “Can you cook something normal tomorrow?”

They argue. What is normal? And the dinner grows cold between them. The indulgent dream ends, a final sip of rice wine tossed into the sink. He walks out, not bothering to button his coat. The day after, she uproots the basil and lets the pot fall to the floor.

Header photograph © Joanna C. Valente.

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