Pesto In Popular Culture

Giulia eating trenette al pesto in Luca

There's so many iconic food moments in the history of cinema. From Cool Hand Luke eating fifty eggs in an hour, to the pie-driven pukefest of Stand By Me, to the, err, inventive use of butter in Last Tango In Paris.

Pasta in particular has featured prominently in Hollywood... from the slapstick genius of Jack Lemmon sieving linguine through a wooden tennis racket in The Apartment, to one of cinema's most iconic scenes ever when Lady And The Tramp meet on the lips as they share spaghetti.

Pesto on the big screen
As for pesto, well, it hasn't been quite so fortunate. There was an "Anti Pesto" van in Wallace & Gromit, although nothing to do with pesto, clearly. There was a bad-tempered pigeon called Pesto in Animaniacs, though quite why he was called that is anyone's guess. Probably the nearest pesto has come to fame in the world of film is in Pixar's Luca where the characters are introduced to Trenette al Pesto.

Pesto on the small screen
Jimmy Pesto was a popular character in Bob's Burgers, although that story didn't end well. Jay Johnston who voiced the character was fired as soon as the producers found out that he took part in the 2021 US Capital Riots.

Pesto online
Away from film, undoubtedly the biggest [free] PR campaign that pesto has ever enjoyed is when the cool kids of Instagram realised that pesto and eggs make for rather fine bedfellows. Some videos clocked up over 100-million views and for a short period of time it felt like it was the coolest thing on the planet.

Pesto and celebrities
Frank Sinatra's love of pesto is legendary. In the 60s he became friends with Luciano Belloni Zeffirino, the founder of Genoa's celebrated restaurant, Zeffirino. He loved their pesto so much that he regularly had it flown to his various residences in Malibu, Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

When Luciano's son, Gian Paolo, took over the business, he continued to wow the great and the good with what was now firmly established as the best pesto in Genoa. Mohammad Ali, Sophia Loren and Luciano Pavarotti were among the frequent A-list visitors. As if that wasn't enough, the restaurant’s pesto became the favourite of the Vatican, leading to their nickname “the Pope’s Pesto Maker”.

In a 2021 interview with Zane Lowe, Blur’s Damon Albarn revealed that he sliced off part of his finger whilst making pesto in a blender. It wasn't a great situation for a pianist to find himself in, but he was stitched back up and music fans are better off as a result. The moral of the story? Kids, don’t do drugs. Sorry no, that's not it, we mean kids, always use a pestle and mortar when making pesto.

Drew Barrymore has been a vocal fan of pesto, as has a legion of famous chefs including Jamie Oliver, Gennaro Contaldo and Massimo Bottura.

Pesto in the media
Unfortunately, most of pesto's media appearances have been rather negative. Virtually every major UK grocer had to recall a large range of their pesto products in 2020 and again in 2022 due to a salmonella risk.

At the start of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, pesto made the headlines again as the sunflower oil shortage put up prices for all kinds of cooking oil. That clearly wasn’t good news for a sauce whose biggest ingredient is… oil.

In 2018, a rather unflattering Which? investigation highlighted cheap ingredients used to bulk out many supermarket pestos. It made for slightly uncomfortable reading when they identified potato flakes, sugar and even water in some.

By far the worst piece of publicity was in 2013 when dozens of Italians were hospitalised with botulism poisoning from eating pesto. Thankfully everyone survived, but it caused longterm repetitional damage for the country's flagship sauce.

There's been one pesto-related story though, which warmed our hearts. In 2017, Genoa Airport specifically excluded pesto from the usual 100g hand-luggage limit on liquids. In return for a small donation to charity, foodie-flyers were allowed to take up to 500g of pesto on-board with them. The caveat? It must be pesto alla Genovese.

Pesto in the foodie world
The loudest proponent of pesto has got to be Roberto Panizza, the self-styled bon vivant and charismatic founder of the Pesto World Championship whose live's mission is to bang pesto's drum to whoever will listen.

This biannual event is a celebration of the world's most beloved sauce and gets plenty of attention in the foodie world where people wait to see who will be awarded the coverted Golden Pestle.

Pesto in music
In 2018 the Italian singer-songwriter going by the name Calcutta released the song Pesto. Surely this would be a gushingly flattering calling cry for Italy’s most famous export? Well no, not exactly. Pesto is only mentioned once in the song and not exactly in a great light:

Outside it is night, I eat the dark with pesto
I don't like it but I swallow it anyway

Pesto in literature
We have no idea how many cookbooks there are out there featuring pesto recipes but it's got to be in the tens of thousands. In terms of creative literature however, Susan M. Baganz's 2015 book, Pesto and Potholes, follows the trials and tribulations of a Milwaukee woman meeting a handsome chef. Suffice to say pesto is yet to get it's big break in high-literature!

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