One of the joys of being at Oxford is the number of pretentious conversations that one is party to — usually in no less pretentious settings. About three courses into a five-course black-tie dinner I attended some time last year, discussion turned to the modern employment of the term “basic”. Usually I spend most of my energy trying not to spill red wine or port down my fancy dress (I almost always fail) or calculate how much camembert I can justifiably take from the cheese board relative to the number of people around me, but on this occasion something caught my attention. The more cultured of my dining companions had noticed that Shakespeare used the term ‘base’ in a similarly derogatory way as the modern youth use ‘basic’ — a fact that, they hastened to agree, had probably gone unnoticed by most of the population (guilty as charged).
It is certainly true that “basic” does not always carry positive connotations in common parlance. It often refers to the cheapest, lowest quality product in a supermarket, or holiday accommodation that is little short of dire. Another Oxford friend once complained at length about all the “basic white girls” around, “with their pumpkin spice lattes and Ugg boots and pink iPhones”– bit awkward, that’s me on all fronts, as I gleefully informed him. I was somewhat comforted to find that Urban Dictionary gives slightly broader criteria for defining one as “basic”:
1. Used to describe someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.
2. Lacking intelligence and unable to socialize on even an elementary level.
3. Annoyingly frustrating because of the above.
I’m not sure that pumpkin spice lattes, Ugg boots, and pink iPhones are a clear indicator that someone is “lacking intelligence” — although perhaps being unable to prevent red wine getting on every dress you own might be.
I’m fairly convinced that the demonisation of the word “basic” is a marketing ploy, though, designed by big business to make you buy the most expensive options you possibly can — “basic” just isn’t good enough if you can possibly afford better. But that actually isn’t at all true if you think about it, we’ve just been conditioned to think so. Take this basic tomato sauce: if all you need is a simple, versatile tomato sauce that’s quick and tasty and can be served over pasta, or spread on pizza, or used to layer up a lasagne, why spend ages and use expensive ingredients making something fancy? There’s no logic to it.
This sauce is proudly and unashamedly basic, uses only a handful of readily available ingredients, and can be made in under 15 minutes. I don’t think Shakespeare would have had a problem with that.
- 2 x 400g can chopped tomatoes
- 2 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
- 4-5 garlic cloves
- large handful of fresh basil
- salt and pepper
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar (not essential, but gives a hint of sweetness and flavour. Don’t worry if you don’t have it.)
- Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan. Finely chop the garlic and add to the pan. Fry, stirring frequently, over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, until crispy and golden but not burning.
- Add the tomatoes and bring to a gentle boil. Season liberally with salt and pepper, and add the balsamic vinegar. Once the sauce is well heated and thickened, finely chop the fresh basil and stir it in. Serve hot over freshly cooked pasta, or spread over pizza bases, or in lasagne…the possibilities are endless!