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The Butterfly Effect, part 1

I’ve been tagged by Ilva, she of the fabulous Lucullian Delights, on this intriguing meme. Ilva never fails to amaze me with her gorgeous photography and delicious recipes. Of course, I’m a staunch Italophile, and as she’s based in Pistoia, Tuscany, she’s got my undivided attention.

The meme, The Butterfly Effect, originated at Dan Perlman’s Salt Shaker, with the following proposition:

My thought in this meme is food items or events that changed your foodie life. Not some “oh, it’s the first time I didn’t put jelly on a peanut butter sandwich and used bananas instead” sort of change, unless you truly feel that affected you profoundly. That’s the key – it affected you profoundly, in some manner. A moment you can look back at and say “that was a defining moment”. The questions are simple, the answers might be harder – an item, person, event, or place that had that effect on you, and why. They don’t have to be big splashy things – sometimes it’s something very small and simple that changes the way we view the world – the famed “butterfly effect” (and I’m not talking about the Aston Kutcher movie). So, to those who want to participate, copy this and pass it on (and, if you’re so inclined, do a trackback to the originating post). Here are your categories:

1. An ingredient
2. A dish, a recipe
3. A meal (in a restaurant, a home, or elsewhere)
4. A cookbook or other written work
5. A food “personality” (chef, writer, etc.)
6. Another person in your life

Like Ilva, and Tana before her, I will take on this challenge in six separate posts. And to spread the love, I am tagging the following food bloggers to cogitate over the same things: Garrett at Vanilla Garlic, Martha at 2 Tasty Ladies (though she’s just left on vacation…), Sam at Becks & Posh (as fodder for her upcoming Blogathon), Adam at Bloghungry and Anni at Life Is a Banquet. I very much look forward to everyone’s postings! My first after the jump.

The Butterfly Effect
Part 1: Ingredient

Basil
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I suppose like most kids, I never put much thought into what I was eating. I knew what I liked and what I didn’t like, and that was pretty much that. I didn’t understand that not everyone ate spaghetti all’aglio e olio (a.k.a. "ally-oly"), or chicken cacciatore or a host of other Italian dishes for dinner most every night. Of course everyone ate fried pepper and sausage sandwiches on crusty Italian bread, didn’t they? In the town of Rotterdam, NY, where most of my family (and thousands of other Italian emigrant families) lived, they mostly did.

One day, when I must have been about seven or so, we were at my great aunt and uncle’s house. Aunt Mary and Uncle Tony had a small herb garden in their back yard, and I was checking out the plants. Uncle Tony told me to pick a leaf from one of the basil plants and told me to smell it. He explained that basil was in our blood, was one of the defining flavors of our culture that set us apart. It was the first time I had smelled, really smelled, fresh basil, and I found the complex aroma of mint, anise and vegetal greenness intoxicating. It was the first time I became aware of food as a cultural identifier. (The irony is that most of the dishes we make in my family are either of Abruzzese or Calabrese origin, where they use relatively little basil and far more oregano, but it still began a lifelong love affair with the herb.)

As I grew older, and more aware of the various things that made us all individuals, my Italian heritage, expressed most eloquently through food, became increasingly important to me. Dishes that were, for me, workaday were exotic and intriguing to friends for whom Italian food was an experience exclusively available in restaurants. To this day, I continue to try to recapture and document as many of these recipes as possible.

I confess I found it difficult to find just one ingredient that had such an epiphanous effect on my life. Rather, as I spend more time learning and studying food, every ingredient reveals its mysteries like Salomé’s veils. For example, I recently learned whilst reading Harold McGee’s indispensible On Food and Cooking that there is both a thin white and thick white to eggs. If you crack an egg into a slotted spoon and draining off the thin white, the remaining thick white and yolk make for perfect, shapely poached eggs without all the wispy stuff clouding up the works. Every day, every ingredient and every dish has its lessons to be learned, even the things you though you knew all too well.

Next: Part 2 >>

This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. I want to have a basil perfume so I not only can eat and enjoy it, I also want to smell and enjoy it, I love it! Great choice of ingredient and thanks for your generous words!

  2. Seriously … if I could just take several sprigs and rub them all over my body (without leaving unsightly greenish-brown marks), I would. I love pretty much all herbs, but basil in particular gives me a tingly high.

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