• Tara Callaghan

Basil: What It Can Teach Us About First Impressions and Other Surprising Facts

Have you ever met someone you initially didn’t like, only to have them become a dear friend down the road? Heard a song you instantly couldn’t stand, only to find yourself happily humming it to yourself one afternoon? Try a food for the first time and find it repulsive, only to try it again years later and absolutely love it?

Our first impression of something may be drastically different than the one that lasts.

While it’s often thought that our first impressions are hard to change, this isn’t always the case. We grow to love things. We grow to hate things. What I have trouble pinpointing is the moment my opinion changes.

My earliest memory of basil was a time my dad made meatballs and added it to the mix. I found the flavour overwhelmingly strong, akin to black liquorice which at the time I hated. The fact alone that my dad had added something ‘different’ to the meatballs was enough to send my tween tastebuds into a fury of fear and apprehension. Then some unmemorable day, years later, my taste for basil (and black liquorice) changed.

How we acquire a liking for something has to do with how we train our brain to see it in a more appealing way. We may do this intentionally or unintentionally. Learning the sweeter side of somebody’s personality can offset the sourness of his or her irritable side. A cheesy song you first hated can suddenly seem more palatable if paired with a moment you’re feeling particularly upbeat.

A big reason I became more open to trying different foods was due to the company I kept. I admired people who were open-minded. These people rarely showed an aversion to trying new foods and as a result they inspired my brain and tastebuds to be more accepting and adventurous.

As for basil, I’m guessing that when I finally saw it as a pretty green leaf rather than a myserteous, foreign flavour in a meatball, my perception of its flavour changed. Context shapes everything. The same can be said for how we grow to dislike things. Our brain is trained to find that thing repulsive as a result of the negative context we place that thing in. As it happens, my negative first impression of basil bears resemblance to a significant portion of its early history.

For a long time, basil had a bad rap.

For thousands of years and into the Victorian era, there was long-held hatred for what we now ironically call ‘sweet’ basil. This related to the Greek origins of its name, O. basilicum that sounds very similar to another Greek word basilisk. Basilicum translates to kingly herb, while basilisk translates to king of serpents. This close association gave basil the negative connotation of being dangerous and potentially cursed. For years, people denied themselves the beautiful flavour of basil due to the same feelings my own tween tastebuds acted on: fear and apprehension.

I’m not sure at what point people started to realize the herb was indeed kingly and had little to do with snakes. Perhaps the name sweet basil came about in an effort to convince people to see it differently. You may be surprised to learn that - according to wikipedia - the first introduction of basil to pesto was not documented until the mid-19th century. Up until then, pesto was made with other herbs. You may also be surprised to know that while basil is often used in savoury dishes like pesto and tomato sauce, the oil of sweet basil also pairs well with candy, baked goods and ice cream.

But there’s a lot more to basil than taste.

Basil has antioxidant qualities and is a natural disinfectant. It can help prevent dental plaque. It repels mosquitos. In Greece, it is common to keep potted greek basil on the table to deter flies. Basil leaves can also be used to make a tea that aids in digestion and calms nerves.

Holy basil (O. tenuiflorum), widely used in India and Malaysia, has all kinds of benefits. It’s been shown to have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, reducing pain and fever. Scientific research also supports its roll in the treatment of diabetes due to its hypoglycaemic effect. If that weren’t enough, it has been linked to improved memory and has antiallergic properties that make it beneficial in treating hay fever and asthma.

While I often think of basil as a small plant, a variety known as tree basil (O.gratissimum) commonly referred to in Africa as tea bush, can grow up to ten feet high. The clove-scented oil of this plant is antimicrobial and an effective repellent against ticks.

Basil has a number of different varieties and cultivars, which is attributed to the the fact that:

Basil is notoriously promiscuous.

That’s right. The seemingly innocent little bugger likes to get around. Basil varieties will readily cross with one another, which lends to their impressive array of flavours and aromas, including: anise, cinnamon, liquorice, cloves, eucalyptus, lemon, lime, thyme, among others. This can make saving basil seed a little tricky, since hybrids of different varieties can eventually lose their viability and fail to germinate.

Why grocery store basil plants will not last.

If an effort to grow your own basil, you may have tried to keep that grocery store plant alive on your windowsill, only to be met with disappointing results. While the potted formats grocery stores sell may last a bit longer, because they are grown in greenhouses under very controlled conditions, the likelihood that your windowsill will replicate these conditions is slim to none.

If you want to grow your own basil, you’re best to buy starter plants from a nursery or local grower that have been hardened off to cooler temperatures. You can also grow basil by taking cuttings from an established plant. Or, if you start it early enough, basil is relatively easy to grow from seed. Make sure to give it a warm, sunny, sheltered spot and water it consistently.

Want your basil to last? Try this age old trick.

Italian chefs commonly store basil by filling a jar with leaves, lightly salting them, topping the jar with olive oil, closing it tightly and storing in fridge. This way it can last a few weeks and the flavour will infuse in the oil which can then be used on pizzas, in salad dressings, and so on.

Basil can also be kept in vinegar. Purple-leaved basils are a particularly nice choice, creating both a flavoured and coloured vinegar.

To maintain fresh leaves, I’ve had the most success with keeping them in a small jar with a bit of water in the bottom. The jar should be kept on your counter top and not in the fridge, as temperatures below 5 degrees will cause the leaves to wilt.

Lastly, if you want to ensure your liking for the flavour of basil will last, take care not to eat it in the company of irritable people, whilst listening to an annoying song.

Sources: The Encyclopedia of Herbs by Author O. Tucker and Thomas Debaggio, Herbs of Choice by Barro E. Tyler, Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs.

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