In my family, I have a countless numbers of cousins (over 500) some are older and some are younger, but I love giving the title of Aunt or Uncle to the cousins that have touched my heart, my Uncle Dusty was one of those very special people. Born Harvey Rhodes in 1918 he became the one and only love of my Aunt Patricia. My Aunt Pat is on my Mother’s side of the family tree, my Grandfather (moms dad) was my Aunt Pat’s Uncle. My Mom and Aunt Pat grew up as “sisters” so it was only natural for my sister, Elizabeth and I to call her “Aunt”. Good lord I hope that made sense.
Every summer when my sister and I were growing up our Mom would pack our bags and the car up for the long 7-hour drive from Ventura to Sonora, California. There, on Old Phoenix Lake my Aunt and Uncle had a 5 acre piece of land with a beautiful home, garden, boat dock, geese, ducks, swans, deer, squirrels and freedom. I could be so free up there in that red clay dirt and that tulle lined bank. There was not a summer that went by with out the fishing tournament or the canoe floating book reading parties but the best part to me was the cooking. My Uncle being Italian had many, many recipes but my favorite one was basic and simple pesto pasta. My Aunt Pat was the Chef of the family, she took his directions/recipes and gave every dish her personal touch and love.
Their garden was massive in size it had to be 100 feet long by 20 feet wide with this 12’ tall protective deer fence. Inside the fence grew basil plants as high as your waist 10-20 of those graceful and peppery fragrant plants grew. Next to those were the rows of good sweet summer white corn, on the far right side were the most beautiful rose bushes (over 25), my Uncle planted all of those for my Aunt and they were stunning. Through the middle section was the prize of the garden, the tomatoes: cherry, Roma, beefsteak and some wonderful heirloom variety. The job my sister and I were tasked with after breakfast while we were visiting was to get our garden pails and go harvest the tomatoes. As we were walking out of the house I would swipe the saltshaker and tuck it into my pocket. Through the gate into that garden we would go, we harvested tomatoes until our pails were full and when the heat of the morning finally got to us we would dump one of those tomato filled pails into our outstretched shirts. That empty pail was filled with water from the garden hose, there we would sit down in the middle of the basil plants and secretly eat the tomatoes and watch the garden snakes slither by. The procedure was this; wash the tomato in the water, sprinkle the salt on the tomato, wrap it in a fresh washed basil leaf and repeat about 100 times. Then re-pick some tomatoes and take them into the house. There was something about those fresh picked sun warmed tomatoes, the juicy and bursting sweet like sugar taste and that smell, the unmistakeable woodsy, sweet, fresh tomato scent. I can truly say a fresh picked tomato from the garden is one of my favorite flavors and scents.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, my Aunt would have the big oversized pasta pot on the stove bubbling away with a good handful of salt and long glug (her measurement) of olive oil in it. She would then add the cut angel hair or small egg noodle pasta to the boiling water. While it was cooking away the food processor was brought out and handfuls of freshly picked and washed basil leaves would go into the bowl. Warm toasted pine nuts sat in their bowl along with fresh crushed garlic, grated parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper. The blades started to spin and in went the ingredients- to this day there was never a recipe card it was all done by memory. The pasta was drained and cooled, then a bit of olive oil added with that a light toss or two with the pasta forks. Then the magic started to happen which always seemed to coincide with a S.F. Giants baseball game being on the radio or TV. Small scoopfuls of that fresh made pesto were added to the cooled pasta and the big wooden pasta forks were used to toss it around. Next, a handful of forks were placed out on the counter, one for each of us. Throughout the day we were allowed to take a taste and add a little of this and a little of that, it was a family made dish. My addition was always more olive oil, my sister was more cheese, and my Uncle was salt and more pesto. After a few hours it was perfect and into the fridge it went. We ate that pasta for the next 3 days weather with breakfast; lunch or dinner it was a staple and something I always looked forward to.
My Uncle Dusty gave me one of the most precious gifts and that was his time. My parent’s divorce truly crippled me, I was 7 when it started and I was 13 by the time it was over. Just getting away and escaping to a place where freedom was the everyday norm healed and rebuilt my soul. On the lake at sunrise with my Uncle I learned the art of tying on a hook. I learned to trust and quiet my breath, I listened to the water, birds and that special sound an early morning crisp breeze makes through the long and bending tulle reeds. I also learned how to throw up over the side of the boat the first time I had to clean my own fish; hey I was 7 years old, forgive me. I was taught to fish only what was gong to be eaten and to return the prize winning bass back into the water because if they had lived that long and gotten that big they were important to the lake and not our dinner plate. My uncle shared the lessons of classic music with the great like Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong. I think if there was ever one music genre I could not live with out hearing it’s the Big Band Era music and I owe that all to my Uncle. I learned how to keep score while listening to his beloved New York turned San Francisco Giants baseball games. You want to know something amazing? In his storage are binders and binders of hand written score cards for every game ever played, his father started it and he continued it- I’m not kidding every game.
Dusty gave big enveloping hugs and lifted you off the ground with them, that honestly meant more to me than anything, I was loved and safe that’s all that really matters, right? Nightly slide shows were shown, I traveled from China to Brazil to Kuala Lumpur to Italy to England to Hawaii to Alaska to Argentina the Bahamas and then to the Mediterranean- I loved those nights! I was lucky, I went to his Lion Club meetings and learned the art of making good Cioppino. It was all about the fresh clams, muscles, shrimp and white fish, wine, small wooden boat oars to stir the giant pots and all the tall tale stories that went with it, those were absolutely priceless moments in my life.
Every evening 5 o’clock was cocktail time out on the deck of the house overlooking the lake there I was schooled on the proper amount of bourbon or scotch to be poured over crushed ice and then the fun part! My job was to insert the gas cartridge to the seltzer water bottle, bubbles, bubbles and more bubbles flowed in the water. For us kids we had our cocktails too- apple fizzy water. A cocktail glass filled with crushed ice, apple juice and seltzer water. I would prop my feet up on the deck to mimic my mom and sip my drink and watch the sun set on that lake along with all the days fun.
This is a post I could let go on and but that’s where my Uncle will always be with me, in my heart, my food, my stories and somewhere on a lake quietly fishing the day away. Thank you for your love, compassion and lessons Uncle Dusty and above all thank you for always welcoming me into your home every summer when I was growing up, you just let me be a kid and play the summers away. I love you and I will miss you very much.
Cheers to a full and wonderfully lived 96 years of life Uncle Dusty!
3 big handfuls of Basil leaves, washed and leaves plucked from the stems
4 Garlic cloves
¼- ½ cup Parmesan cheese, fine graded
Salt and pepper- to taste
½ cup Toasted pine nuts
½- 1 cup Olive oil
Set your food processor up using the chopping blade. Place half the basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil into the container. Pulse this a few times, about 30 seconds, the pesto will be chunky, not smooth yet. Add the rest of your basil leaves and then pulse for an additional 30 seconds. Look at your texture if it is too chunky or grainy pulse a few more times and if needed, add a bit more olive oil. Add in the grated cheese, salt and pepper to taste. You can add a bit of lemon juice if you would like. Continue to pulse until desired consistency is achieved. Use right away or store in the fridge in a container with a tight seal. You can also freeze pest for up to 6 months.
In a few weeks I will be traveling back up to Sonora with my Mother, sister and my two youngest children for a visit to Old Phoenix Lake. I will be taking many, many pictures and posting them here on my blog and my Facebook page. You will see my favorite candy store in Columbia, the little stores in Jamestown then the small and quiet town of Sonora, the college where my Uncle was the first President. The quaint museum that my Aunt and Uncle donated thousands of hours to, the small pottery stores, the unique mountain book shop- everywhere I grew up you will see. I feel its the best way I can honor him, its the best way to heal a very sad heart.