Basil Behind the Ear


I’m outfront weeding the garden and a neighbor passes by, “Oh! You have something stuck in your hair, let me get it.” “Nope!” I quickly replied, placing my hand by my ear. “That’s supposed to be there, its basil!”

Across the street at the Beach 91st St. Community Garden is where I gather my basil leaves*, and when doing so, think of my grandfather Ralph, who always in the summertime had a piece of basil behind his ear. I have this image in my mind like a still photograph, of him sitting on the red stoop with a bundle of basil in hand and one leaf wedged behind his huge ear.

Grandpa would pinch a leaf from the plant and smile. I remember his loud, audible inhales before adorning his head with the fragrant herb. He gave us basil too and we wore the leaf just like he would, without any thought or question.

These were the late days of summer when my sisters and I helped grandpa harvest. We’d take several basil leaves and wrap them in tinfoil, making rectangular pouches to store in the freezer. Clear as day I remember folding the tinfoil at the kitchen counter. I had to stand on a chair because I was too short to reach. Grandpa Ralph would hover over us “That’s too much!!!” or “That’s too little!!” Despite his voice being loud and aggressive, he was as sweet as the basil we were packing away.

I’m unsure if the tinfoil storage method is an Italian thing, a Sanfilippo tradition my grandfather’s people brought from the old country, or the right way to do it. Regardless, this is how I still freeze my basil today.


I asked my mother why my grandfather always had basil behind his ear but she didn’t know. “I guess he liked the smell.” she said. I couldn’t help searching a little online. I found an archived NY Times article from 1989 about a noted chef and gardener, Dr. Angelo Pellegrini. Here was a clue,  “…it was an aromatic branch of dark-green basil that he raised to his nose and sniffed with deep pleasure. In Italy when we go courting, we put this behind the ear, It gets them every time.”

Sadly, I’ll never get to hear my grandfather’s story about why he wore basil by his ear.  I continue the tradition thought, because for me, basil behind the ear reminds me of him, my childhood days learning in the kitchen and the special memories I hold of those summer days with my family in the garden.

Find my pesto recipe on The Glorified Tomato here.

* Harvest basil by cutting or pinching the stem right above a new leaf pair. In a few weeks, your basil plant will be ready to harvest again.

tagged in basil, family, grandpa