|This is how I used to shop for basil.|
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 mit 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.
|Eleanor in her spot, ruins in Puerto Escondido.|