Tuesday, August 14

Polluting our Pesto

foto from www.geekcasual.com

Some readers will undoubtedly recall the cult Wendy's commercial, Where's the Beef?  from the 1980s.  I'm hoping that in our multi-cultural 21st century, Where's the Pesto? will go viral -- all I need is video footage of a little Italian gramma, dressed in black, tasting the pesto they are currently touting in stores across the country.  Zoom in on her face: she stares at her linguini and shouts it out to the heavens.  Fade out.
Anyone who has ever made their own pesto -- and in basilico bountiful Italy, it's a sin to even think about buying the stuff in jars -- will know that like much of great Italian cuisine, pesto is nothing but the unbelievable combination of a few select ingredients.  He's not Italian, but, we'll take Jamie Oliver's word for the classic recipe:  

• ½ a clove of garlic, chopped
• sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 3 good handfuls of fresh basil, leaves picked and chopped
• a handful of pine nuts, very lightly toasted
• a good handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese  [some use Pecorino, ndr]
• extra virgin olive oil

• a small squeeze of lemon juice  optional

That's all you need for a perfect pesto concoction.  My mother makes it in large quantities and then pours it into ice cube trays so you only pop out the small bit that you need that very evening, without seeing the entire contents go bad in the fridge.  But, in a pinch, you could always waltz into the local grocery store and pick up a jar of the green ambrosia, restraining yourself from eating it with your index finger along your way back home.
But in my perfect pesto world, I started noticing that something was awry in my pesto dishes; and it wasn't the sometimes overcooked linguini.  I have a nut allergy, and wondered, if the pine nuts (which, along with a few others like chestnuts aren't really nuts and so don't actually affect people the same way) in my pesto were suddenly causing me miserable stomach aches.  My nose didn't know it, but my stomach could tell that peanuts were not far from my pesto stash.
I went to the store and checked the labels.  I fully expected to see that common and fairly ridiculous warning label, produced in a place that also produces nutty things.  Instead, what I saw was much much worse.  In a country that doesn't even grow peanuts, depriving entire generations of the pleasures of peanut butter (well, until now)...I could not find a single jar of pesto, even in the gourmet selection, that did not list peanuts as a main ingredient.  The labels now sport Gluten Free, as if someone who is in the throes of asphyxiation is going to care about the glutens in their stomach.  For good measure, most industrial pestos also use sunflower oil, and not the olive variety.

Stomach aches aside, I find this bastardization of one of the world's most perfect foods utterly blasphemous.  Italian producers go to great lengths to keep their foods pure and labeling shows it:  prosciutto di parma must be from Parma, wines from specific wine regions, the list goes on.  And while pesto doesn't necessarily have to come from Liguria, you'd think it would in the very least have Italian ingredients, and not some peanut pickin' pot-pourri from America's deep south.

So, how to handle this pesto imposter?  At the tiny corner deli shops, you can still buy the stuff fresh, but, going forward, I'm still going to ask for the ingredients.  And, if you're a traveler to Italy and happen to have a serious peanut allergy, I would just avoid the pesto altogether.  Unless you're sure they're making it themselves, there's no way to tell...perhaps until it's too late.

In the meantime, strike up the call, produce a viral video, do what you can, in order that PESTO, Ligurian Green Gold, stays true to its colors.

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