Basilicum Tormentum

by Jennifer Iannolo

“…O cruelty,
To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”
– John Keats, “The Pot of Basil”

There is no way for me to say this without sounding like a complete maniac, so I’ll just come out with it: Nothing gets my blood flowing like basil. I don’t mean that it is pleasing to my palate (it is); or that it is my favorite ingredient (it is); but that I am utterly obsessed with its arresting fragrance.

As soon as the basil in my mother’s garden is ready for picking, I am out there like a wanton lover, inhaling its scent so hard that I become deprived of oxygen, and feel myself swaying in a dreamlike haze. After tearing up the leaves to sprinkle over a bowl of tomatoes, my fingers are perfumed for the rest of the day, and I can return to my basil daydreams with the mere wave of a hand.

I’m not sure I’ve experienced a lust quite like it — I simply cannot get enough. This year I’ve experimented with adding the torn leaves to my bath so I can smell its ethereal aroma in my hair; I even keep a few leaves on my desk so I can rejuvenate my senses during the workday, allowing the captivating scent to coat my palate as I muddle through the tasks at hand. Perhaps some sort of twelve-step program is in order, because my greed is out of control.

My heritage is partly Mediterranean, so my entire lifetime of summers has been resplendent with this herbal perfume; with just a whiff, I become a woman possessed. Are my ancestors haunting me with some strange gene mutation? I had to know more about the history of this verdant demon that held me so firmly in its grasp. Was it just me, or was there some sort of addictive chemical reaction involved?

The discoveries I made were steeped in folklore, and involved cursing, yelling, love, and madness. Not necessarily in that order.

With the volume of myths surrounding this herb, I had a difficult time keeping them all straight. Depending on which reference you read, basil’s name is potentially derived from the Latin basilicum or the Greek basileum, both of which refer to it being “worthy of a king.” However, in other texts it seems to refer to one becoming crazed by its scent. I was on to something.

Now, I was familiar with an old Italian wives’ tale about cursing at the basil while planting it, then screaming at the plant while plucking the leaves from its stem, but I thought perhaps those odd ancestors of mine had partaken of either a bit too much wine or Mediterranean sun — or both. (Given some of the folklore I had to wade through, this actually seemed like one of the saner explanations.) But from whence came all this hollering?

From what I have been able to gather, it seems those crazy Romans believed basil contained the demon spirit of a basilisk (big, ugly, dragon creature), and in order to prevent the onset of madness, one had to scream curses at the basil while picking its leaves in order to keep the demons at bay. Or perhaps it was to scare away the scorpions purportedly living inside the plant. I’m still not clear on that one. There is also a myth about a girl, Isabella, whose lover was murdered, so she planted his head underneath a basil plant to keep it close to her, and her tears kept the plant watered. The Keats poem above refers to her brothers stealing the pot, which I imagine must have been quite traumatic for the poor girl.

This romantic myth may be part of the reason for basil’s connection with love; it is a potent symbol in many cultures, and when given as a gift, is seen as a fervent expression of amorous inclinations. In days of old, pots of it were placed on the balconies of women looking for a suitor. Since my mother has an entire garden full of basil plants, this gives me new ideas. Perhaps it would look inviting adorning my entire fire escape and sidewalk.

After a lengthy investigation, and many conflicting details, the only conclusion I can make with absolute conviction is that basil has tempted and tormented the senses of mankind — on many continents — since its first leaves were pulled from the ground. Its fragrance is timeless, its hint of anise bewitching, and its sweetness a joy to behold when complemented by citrusy, acidic partners in the dance of flavor.

And since I can find no clear explanation — or remedy — for my madness, I will simply have to keep indulging myself until a cure is found. And I am decorating that fire escape.

To learn more about basil and its uses in your kitchen, see our test kitchen’s Basil Primer.

This article was originally published in August 2005. Jennifer has still not caught a husband with the basil, because she keeps killing it. (The plant.)

Photo: Kelly Cline

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