Things I learned from my mother:

  • Making great pesto
  • Being almost always polite
  • Managing my own uterus

And, up until I didn’t have a uterus, manage it I did, in the same way I have handled other misbehaving parts of my body: with full agency and the support of doctors and the occasional acupuncturist. It was a happy, if fraught, relationship with a piece of me that, albeit so tiny, critically defined my womanhood. My uterus and I went through a lot together, but we always had each other’s back and the right to decide what was best, including interrupting an unwanted pregnancy when we were in our teens. I loved it and respected it. I mourned its loss, even as I sanctioned it.

I have my mother to thank for this rich experience. In the ’70s, scores of Italian women took to the streets chanting “L’utero é mio e me lo gestisco io” — loosely translatable to “I can manage my own uterus, thank you very much.” She made sure my siblings and I were familiar with the slogan and the hand gesture that went with it; that we understood the significance and the impact of the struggle. My mother was part of an unstoppable force that would lead to the 1978 decriminalization of abortion in Italy. 

From that tumultuous, exciting time, I remember the elation of being allowed to eschew the ingrained good manners of my rearing. It was liberating to dress down the insidious brand of small-minded Catholicism that affected many in my small hometown. PE classes were girls-vs.-boys screaming matches, and meal times easily became battlefields. I like to think my mother tolerated my antics because she was relieved to watch the suffocating mold of societal expectations slowly shatter for her daughters.

My mother was my mother, though, and even as she marched for women’s rights, she continued to comfortably inhabit her traditional role of homemaker, organizing that next rally while picking fabric for a new curtain or gathering signatures while preserving whatever came from our garden. I don’t know if her life would have been more fulfilled with a profession in it. What I know is that watching her be who she was indelibly kneaded the feminist core I still hold today.

While in the kitchen, she especially had my full attention when grinding her own version of pesto, with herbs beyond basil, and nuts beyond pine. My mother, like her pesto, was made of non-conforming flavors that people did not expect, yet talked about for days.

Today, after a week of watching my rights recede, I stand in my own kitchen, an enduring testament to maternal strength, re-creating those very flavors as a rallying cry to shed politeness and join the fight to preserve every woman’s right to her own unforgettable relationship with her uterus.

My mother’s pesto

For 1 pint (Download a printout here.)

3 packed cups fresh basil leaves
1 loose, scant cup parsley leaves
8 to 10 marjoram sprigs
raw pine nuts and/or peeled lightly toasted unsalted almonds
1 garlic clove
olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons grated parmigiano
2 to 3 tablespoons grated pecorino
salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the basil and parsley leaves carefully in the basket of a salad spinner. Place the basket in the spinner and spin as you would a salad. Pour out the water that has gathered on the bottom and fluff the leaves. Spin, pour and fluff again 4 or 5 times. Tilt the leaves onto a clean cloth and pat dry. Remember that oil and water do not mix and there is quite a bit of oil in pesto.

Pluck the marjoram leaves and add to the basil and parsley. Weigh the total of the greens then measure an equivalent weight in nuts. You can mix the nuts evenly or have more of one kind or the other. The proportion should be dictated by taste and availability.

Smash and peel the garlic and toss it in the food processor with the nuts and a teaspoon of salt. Run the processor to give the garlic and nuts a first rough chop.

Stop the processor and add all the herbs and use a spatula or wooden spoon to push them towards the bottom while also lifting the garlic and herbs to mix everything. Turn the motor back on and after about 30 seconds, start slowly streaming in olive oil. You will end up using about 1/2 a cup of oil, but keep in mind that pesto should not be floating in oil, so err on the side of less. You can always add more later.

Keep the processor running until you have a fairly dense mixture with very minced leaves. Sample the mixture, if it tastes grassy, continue mincing until it tastes herby and fresh but not raw. When ready, drag all the pesto into a bowl with a silicone spatula. Adjust salt and pepper, slightly lagging on salt as you have yet to add the cheeses.

Now, stir in the cheeses and taste again to verify that your taste buds are happy. You may have to add more cheese or salt or pepper. Sometimes, though my mother would probably shrug this off as modern treachery, I find that a few drops of lemon juice can bring balance to the final product.

A few things of note:

  • The even weight of leaves and nuts is a technique I acquired during my own professional growth in the kitchen. I have used it successfully in many a version of pesto.
  • It is important to stir in the cheese after processing, or the blades will clump it into fat globules that can throw off both balance and texture.
  • Garlic should not be a defining flavor of pesto, more a sensation. But if you are a fan of it, feel free to add more.
  • Store this in a glass jar, topped with a little olive oil to prevent oxidation. To use, drop a heaping tablespoon per every two people in a warm bowl and dilute it with some of the pasta cooking water right before tossing the cooked pasta in it.
  • Before putting away, re-top with fresh olive oil. I keep my pesto up to a month in the refrigerator. My mother used to freeze it in manageable-sized jars.
  • Pesto can complement things other than pasta. In my childhood home, it was a staple on minestrone. It is great with gnocchi, you can use it on a spring lasagna or spread it on bread. I love it with anchovies, but I love anything with anchovies.
  • As always, feel free to comment or email with questions and constructive observations.

My mother’s pesto. Photo by Viola Buitoni.

Minestrone al pesto. Photo by Viola Buitoni