An Herbal Tale

Long-immersed in the flavors of Mexico, I’d not given basil a thought for a while. Then I saw it.

We grew basil in our D.C. backyard garden. The plant was like a weed in that climate and for a few months every year, we ate basil on everything and made pesto by the quart.

And we didn’t take our basil bonanza for granted. For years before we owned our own home, we harvested our basil in grocery stores, a few non-organic sprigs packaged in thin, clear-plastic containers and waiting patiently with other, like-packaged fresh herbs. It was barely enough for a garnish and would set us back $2.50 a pop.

Long-immersed in the flavors of Mexico, I’d not given basil a thought for a while. Then I saw it. In Chadraui (one of the big-box stores here in La Paz). In the produce section. A large wicker basket bathed in fluorescent light and brimming with dozens of big, fresh bunches of basil.

My pulse quickened as the necessary components of a new meal came together. We had dried oregano and rosemary aboard. Pasta is widely available. Many of the bland, white Mexican cheeses could stand-in for mozzarella…onions, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, parmesan—check, check, check.

But how much was this bunch of fresh basil the size of a baseball mitt gonna cost?

I looked for an Albahaca shelf tag, but there was none. The tag beneath the basil read Epazote: 4.50 c/u. This meant they sold epazote for four-and-a-half pesos a bunch. But this tag was misplaced, because while epazote is an herb, it's nothing like basil (albahaca).

I decided to go for it. Surely this mammoth bunch of albahaca would cost an arm and leg, but it would be a nice treat.

Chadraui doesn’t have stickers on their produce with four-digit identifying codes. The cashiers just have to know them. Unloading my cart that day, I missed the cashier ringing up my basil and so I didn’t note the price. But outside, I scanned my receipt and found it. She’d charged me 4.5 pesos for epazote. How could this Mexican native confuse the two herbs? It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter; I’d just scored about a quarter-pound of beautiful basil for the equivalent of 35 cents U.S.

Over the next few months, I bought increasing quantities of basil. Each time I was charged for epazote. It was so consistent, I began to wonder if it was a La Paz thing, that everyone here just took a vote and decided to call albahaca, epazote. It's what I needed to believe to ease my conscience. Because if it wasn't true, I was a thief and the amount of money I'd cost the store to date, walking out with pounds and pounds of basil for pennies, was nearing the threshold of grand theft.

Then I found myself in Chadraui with Carla, another cruiser on her Big Shop before sailing north.

“Do you guys like basil?”

She answered enthusiastically in the affirmative.

“Oh my god, have I got a secret to share…”

Summer was dawning and I walked Carla over to the football-sized leafy bouquets and showed her the Epazote shelf tag beneath them. I encouraged her to buy half-a-dozen bunches. "Pesto will keep forever," I said.

I tossed a couple into my own cart and when we checked out, Carla was several registers away. I watched my basil move along the conveyor belt until the cashier plucked the bag up and held it to her nose. With her eyes closed, she took a deep inhale before a serene smile brightened her face.

"Ahhh," she moaned, her eye lids fluttering in ecstasy, "albahaca!"

I swallowed, on the verge of yelling out to contradict her: This is epazote! Don’t you remember the vote?

The gig was up. Now in a panic, I worried about Carla paying god-knows-what for an obscene pile of this expensive herb I'd promised her was almost free. I missed the price of my albahaca that flashed on the display. When the cashier was done, I paid and slowly wheeled my cart outside before looking at my receipt. Carla was right behind me and I'd already started apologizing before I saw it: Albahaca 2@ 3.25……6.50—or about fifty cents U.S. for my two bunches.

I’d been ripped off for months.

--MR In our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we slumbered through the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along at http://www.logofdelviento.blogspot.com/

Del Viento basil
This is how I used to shop for basil.Michael Robertson
Puerto Escondido
Eleanor in her spot, ruins in Puerto Escondido.Michael Robertson