Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

I Once Had to Dump a Guy Over Pesto, but Here’s a Pesto Recipe You’ll Love Forever

by 
Valerie Stivers
April 13, 2021

In the TikTok era of viral food trends from around the world, it might be hard to imagine how limited some people’s suburban-American palates once were. I made it all the way to college without ever having seen pesto (or Brie cheese, or espresso, or many other foods that would no longer seem exotic to anyone). And when I did finally see it, it was the centerpiece of a romantic dinner made for me in my sophomore year by an “older” man. To my limited horizons at the time, this mysterious “green gold” the man boasted of seemed like the most sophisticated thing in the world — frighteningly, intimidatingly so. And the date went badly because of it.

 This is funny to me now.  Today I’m a mother of schoolchildren and pesto is one of our easy weeknight staples, and one of the many ways I try to vary the endless roster of pasta, broccoli and burgers. I buy it in glass jars from the supermarket, but recently, in order to save money, I decided to make my own. The oily, bright-green, intensely flavorful result brought me back to that long-ago evening with a man we’ll call Louis, and the drama and tragedy of pesto.

Louis was two years older than I was. This felt highly significant at the time. I met him in a class in which he had an adversarial relationship with the professor and the other students. He was the kind of guy who liked to play devil’s advocate and say things that would be politically or culturally infuriating to the people around him. I admired him for his nonconformity and felt sorry for him too—a cocktail of feelings that has regularly gotten me in trouble when it comes to men. I must have showed my sympathy, because the next thing I knew, I was invited on a date.

At that time at my university, and I suspect it’s the same now, people didn’t really “date.” We hooked up, usually after a lot of drinking. If the hooking up was in service of a future relationship, it emerged murkily out of the general social life. By formally suggesting a date, and then, even more formally, asking me over to his apartment for “dinner,” Louis was breaking the rules, and it was making me nervous. This might sound potentially sexually predatory — I was about to be alone with a difficult man in an off-campus apartment — but I knew that Louis disapproved of the hook-up culture, and those probably weren’t his intentions. I would perhaps have been more comfortable if they were. Extricating myself from pressure-for-sex situations was something I was familiar with. Sitting at someone’s kitchen table while he made dinner and conversation and didn’t refill my plastic wine glass fast enough, was not.

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Most of the date has faded into the mists of memory except that Louis was serving pasta with pesto, an item I had never heard of, and when it came out of the blender he offered me a taste of it on a spoon. This little green spoonful was delicious — salty and oily, rich, strong, herbal — but it had so much flavor it freaked me out. It seemed potent and dangerous, like something that could hurt you if you ate too much. It’s hard to channel such feelings now, but back then, for me, unfamiliar foods carried outsized powers of horror. I also had no idea what was in pesto, and didn’t want to seem like a dope by asking.

I loved it and I wanted to eat it, but it made me too nervous to eat it in front of Louis, and the date turned adversarial. I don’t quite remember what I did, but I must have pretended I wasn’t hungry, or that I’d already eaten (obnoxious!), that I just wanted to drink, or that he was lame for cooking. There was a sexual component, initiated by me and resisted by him. We did not part as friends. My classmates from the seminar said I told you so.

To the extent that I’ve ever looked back on this, it has been to laugh at myself. “Remember how I wronged that guy who tried, crime of crimes, to make me dinner?” But now I realize Louis’s dinner was as provocative as Louis himself. He knew he was being overly serious and flouting the conventions of college dating. He wasn’t trying to make me comfortable, in fact, he was trying to do the opposite, and he succeeded brilliantly. It also underlines the extent to which a shared meal is a form of intimacy and a ground for trust. It’s a place where we can follow the rules or break them, but the rule-breaking should be consensual if we want it to go well.

Fortunately, there’s probably not a college student alive these days who would be rattled by the taste of raw garlic, or who hasn’t heard of pesto. Like I said, the green gold is so familiar in my household it’s become baby-food.  It’s also extraordinarily easy to make yourself, and is cost-effective if you amortize the price of expensive ingredients like pine nuts over many batches. For me, also, basil is one of those herbs I have to buy in huge bunches for small usages, so whizzing up any leftovers into a pesto is added value. Another plus? You can throw in additional greens like spinach, arugula, or kale, if you have it. Or don’t if you don’t. It all works.

The results of this easy recipe are potent and flavorful enough to be good on a first date, but also familiar enough to feed children. Score.

Easy Basil & Spinach (or Not) Pesto

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Makes about 3/4 of a quart

Ingredients

4 cups packed fresh basil leaves, thoroughly washed and dried

2 cups Fifth Season spinach

3 tbsp pine nuts

3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1 cup olive oil

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 tsp salt (or, 1/2 tsp if not using spinach or other green)

1 tbsp lemon juice (or, 1 tsp if not using spinach or other green)

 | 
 | 
Makes about 3/4 of a quart

Ingredients

4 cups packed fresh basil leaves, thoroughly washed and dried

2 cups Fifth Season spinach

3 tbsp pine nuts

3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1 cup olive oil

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 tsp salt (or, 1/2 tsp if not using spinach or other green)

1 tbsp lemon juice (or, 1 tsp if not using spinach or other green)

Ingredients

4 cups packed fresh basil leaves, thoroughly washed and dried

2 cups Fifth Season spinach

3 tbsp pine nuts

3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1 cup olive oil

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 tsp salt (or, 1/2 tsp if not using spinach or other green)

1 tbsp lemon juice (or, 1 tsp if not using spinach or other green)

Directions

Pour all ingredients, starting with the oil so it all ends up on the bottom, into in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Freeze leftover portions for later use.

About the Author

Valerie Stivers

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