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E Pluribus Unum: Making a Pesto with Basil, Marjoram and Tarragon; Celebrating Our “Composite Country”

A garden pesto, made of disparate aromatic herbs and lemon, transforms the flavor of a simple dish of shrimp and linguine into a rich and delectable feast for the Fourth. Who knew that the phrase e pluribus unum came from an ancient pesto recipe?

A garden pesto, made of disparate aromatic herbs and lemon, transforms the flavor of a simple dish of shrimp and linguine into a rich and delectable feast for the Fourth. Who knew that the phrase e pluribus unum came from an ancient pesto recipe?

Can this be true?

In The Table Comes First, Adam Gopnik writes that the phrase e pluribus unum, comes from a recipe for pesto lifted from a Latin poem “long attributed, probably wrongly, to Virgil.”

What? Our national motto? Out of many, one? The words inscribed on every coin jingling in your pocket or purse at this very moment?

But there it is on page 111. In the poem, “Moretum,” “…a peasant cook is pestling together cheese, garlic, and herbs and oil,” writes Gopnik. “When it all comes together, well, e pluribus unum.”

Here’s the relevant passage quoted by the author:

… His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single color, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour’s altered by so many herbs.

As improbable as it seems, isn’t this an extraordinary metaphor for a country created by so many disparate people from so many countries and walks of life? As Gopnik observes, “the cheese and basil and garlic all come together, and yet they all remain distinct. Choosing this for their motto, the founders chose well, and with good taste: pesto is a model for a composite country.”

And, he adds, “a civilized one.” I second that.

It’s a metaphor for a country in which our differences are both celebrated and tolerated, in which there is no single path to perfection. In which everyone contributes what they can—intellect, creativity, hard work, and yes, money—towards the common good. Like pieces of patchwork stitched together into a crazy-but-warm quilt, America could be a country which recognizes and acts as if we are all in this complex, contradictory life together.

When I was wandering through the herb garden yesterday. I was thinking how perfect a dish pesto might be to celebrate the 4th of July. Right now the basils are flourishing. The Genovese and Valentino varieties are erupting, while even the usually retiring Vietnamese and citrus-scented types are standing tall with quadruple the number of leaves and blossoms they normally have. The aromas of the mingled basils are powerfully aromatic, each one a little different—especially the lemon and lime varieties—but all are coolly spicy.

And rather than scowl at the marjoram which has, in my absence, taken a criminal turn, smothering the lemon verbena on one side and strangling the French tarragon on the other, I clipped a few sprawling branches, remembering that Blandina suggested using it to make “a very special pesto.”

Then I took mercy on the tarragon and cut most of it down.

The Fourth of July is, I think, not only a time to celebrate our country’s birth, but also a time to take it easy in the kitchen. Like Gopnik (who makes a fantastic version with basil, cilantro, mint and lime juice) I decided to skip the mortar and pestle—way too much work on a steamy day—and make my garden pesto in the food processor.

Into the machine went the herbs, stripped from their stems, a clove of garlic and some pine nuts. A little whizzing, then came the lemon juice and zest and olive oil. Next it was time to add the Parmesan.

I had to grate a chunk of parmigiano reggiano on my microplane because I wasn’t able to find any already grated cheese at the market. That was a lucky accident, as it turns out, because the freshly grated parmesan was so cloud-like that when it was stirred into the mix, the pesto took on a light, almost fluffy texture.

A little seasoning—crunchy sea salt from Emilia-Romagna in Italy and a pinch of hot red Aleppo pepper flakes—and it was done.

I tasted the pesto, then dived in. The spiciness of the various basils, the anise-like flavor of the tarragon and the lavender-ish, slightly camphorous taste of the marjoram were like a musical glissando, many discrete flavors merging to form a mellifluous whole. The silky richness of the pine nuts and olive oil was balanced not only by the aromatic herbs, but also the tang of the citrus, the umami of the parmesan and the slow burn of the Aleppo pepper flakes.

Seasoning with chunky sea salt is a good idea (if you’re a salt lover) since the salt doesn’t melt into the pesto but keeps its shape and adds crunch when you bite down.

When I awoke this morning, the house was filled the commingled fragrances of all the herbs that had gone into the pesto and a very slight scent of garlic. Absolute heaven.

How can you use this pesto? Well, you could toss spoonfuls of it with linguine and sautéed shrimp, as B and I did. It makes a lovely lunch or supper for the Fourth, with a well-chilled white wine or even some bubbly. But if you must grill, I can tell you that it is delicious on top of steak and roasted corn—and would probably be great with chicken, pork tenderloin and almost any kind of seafood.

All you need now are the fireworks. Happy Fourth of July!
Linguine and Shrimp with Pesto Made of Basil, Marjoram and Tarragon

To serve four:

Ingredients for the pesto (makes about 1 cup):
2 cups fresh basil leaves (Genovese or mixed varieties), stripped from the stems and roughly chopped
½ cup fresh marjoram leaves, stripped from the stems, loosely packed
1/3 cup fresh tarragon leaves, stripped from the stems, loosely packed
1 large clove garlic, coarsely chopped
½ cup pine nuts
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
½ cup olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Chunky sea salt, to taste
Aleppo pepper flakes, or other pepper, to taste

Method for the pesto:
1. In the bowl of the food processor, combine the herbs, garlic and pine nuts. Whiz until the ingredients are nicely blended.
2. Add the lemon juice and zest. With the processor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil.
3. When all the ingredients are combined, scrape the mixture into a bowl. Stir in the freshly grated Parmesan. Add chunky sea salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Although the pesto is best if you use it the day you make it, it can also be refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before using.

Ingredients for the Shrimp and Linguine:
1-1/4 pounds medium shrimp
2 to 3 tablespoons salt
1 pound dried linguine
1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pesto (see above)
1 tablespoon tiny basil, tarragon and marjoram leaves and flowers (optional)

Method for the shrimp and linguine:
1. Set a large pot of water on the stove to boil.
2. Clean the shrimp: Peel and devein, then place them in a large bowl. Sprinkle with a tablespoon of salt. Fill the bowl with cool water and swish the shrimp vigorously with your fingers to remove any impurities. Drain and repeat the process. Drain again. Rinse with cool water, drain and set aside.
3. When the water boils, add salt as desired and then the linguine. Cook until the pasta is al dente—soft on the outside, firm in the center.
4. While the pasta cooks, sauté the shrimp in a large skillet, 1 to 2 minutes per side, until they are pink and just cooked through. (Do this in 2 batches if necessary.) Remove to a plate and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
5. When the pasta is done, drain it in a colander. Let it sit for a minute until it stops steaming, then pour it into a large serving bowl.
6. Toss the linguine with 4 to 5 tablespoons of the pesto so that the strands are lightly but evenly coated with the mixture. Toss the shrimp with another tablespoon or two of the pesto. Add them to the pasta and toss again. Sprinkle with a few herbs if desired. Spoon a little more pesto over the dish and serve immediately. Addicts will thank you for passing the bowl of remaining pesto.

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