I recently went into Barnes & Noble, something I should never do because all my
disposable income goes there…and by income, I mean the money I still get from my dad, birthdays, and graduations because I have yet to find an internship that pays. Either way, I went into the bookstore and dropped a lot of dough on a handful or two of books, one of which was about olive oil. If you told me a few years ago that my favorite book of the year would be about olive oil, my Harry-Potter-reading, John-Steinbeck-loving self would have called you a crazy Muggle. The book is called Extra Virginity, a title which I initially thought was witty, but which also led to an unpleasant encounter in Rittenhouse with a guy who thought I was reading a whole different kind of book.
Awkward, uncomfortable encounters aside, I love pretty much everything about this book. I’ve never been one who was incredibly passionate about olive oil. I didn’t particularly care if it was placed on a table to dip slices of Italian bread in, and I certainly didn’t think it was a topic that warranted a substantial book. Tom Mueller proved me wrong though as he introduced me to a history that is as long and complicated as most religions. His prose is, as cheesy as this sounds, as smooth and balanced as the topic he’s writing about. While he may get a bit overly flowery at times, he is so passionate about the topic that he can’t help it. Mueller doesn’t just focus on the olive oil of one specific time, but really delves into the history of this little pitted fruit, from its regal past to its deceitful present.
Throughout the novel, the past and present are perfectly blended together to provide readers with a clear picture of the life olive oil has led. It was so important to Ancient Rome that there were strict regulations against marketing any olive oil as superior to what it was, and Mueller crafts the trajectory from then until modern times well. There were checkpoints, a labeling system, and a host of other provisions in Rome guaranteed to cut down on crime to protect both person and product, but while there are olive oil laws now, how many people truly think of it in the terms of crime? There was also more ways that people used olive oil back then. Besides a handful of girls who swear by using olive oil in their hair to make it shiny and luscious, there aren’t too many people left who think about bathing their body in golden oil or drinking it like it’s a necessity for life. The way olive oil is approached is completely different now. The state of the market today hasn’t led to better oils and a demand for true extra virgin, but rather bankruptcy, lawsuits, and even more shockingly, suicides.
Mueller utilizes personal story after personal story to illustrate how the people who are making true extra virgin grade oil are losing out to companies that can pass low grade oil blends off as superior. With strategic marketing, hordes of lawyers, and low costs for consumers, deceitful olive oil conglomerates are strong arming small family business out of the market, and people around the world have no idea that they’re being bamboozled into buying something fake. Olive oil is not like wine; no one tweets about a really good bottle or Instragrams a picture of proudly drinking it alone, but it’s something that is just as good for you as a glass of red. It might not give you the boozy, clam, warmth that you get from a few glasses of wine, but there was obviously a reason why it spread across the world and the Romans protected it so stringently in the past. Mueller champions for a much-needed revolution with these points. After putting down this book, I doubt I’ll ever look at olive oil the same way, and I’ll scrutinize that ‘extra virgin’ label a bit more harshly next time I’m in the store.
Even though I appreciate a vast majority of the book, there is one section that I need to critique a bit. As someone who studied abroad in Rome, I think his prose about Testaccio is a bit funny. If I was reading this as someone who was a Rome virgin, I would totally want to visit Testaccio and feel the crunch of ancient amphorae beneath my feet, but as someone who spent months living in the city, I think Testaccio is the plague of Rome. It’s gross, seedy, and someplace that I have no desire to return to after a club experience that included walking into a vomit-filled bathroom and skeevy Italian guys who clawed at anything with curves. I’m definitely more of a happy hour, brunchy, wine kind of girl, and Testaccio offers none of that. It might be historically significant, and it might be built on piles and piles of the vessels that carried truly amazing olive oil in them, but I think it’s also one part of Rome where the modern has really stomped out the history.
Testaccio aside, there are some amazing sections in this book, including one helpful part at the end on how to buy true extra virgin oil. Here are some of my favorite quotes from both Mueller and the people he interviews, and if these don’t have you thinking of olive oil in a new way, then I don’t know how else to convince you:
-“If it says Dom Perignon 1964 then that’s what’s in the bottle, not last month’s Beaujolais Nouveau…But olive oil labels all say the same thing, whether the bottle contains a magnificent oil or this schifezza….”
-“He shook his head, as if unable to believe his eyes. ‘Extra virgin? What’s this oil got to do with virginity? This is a whore.'”
-“Once someone tries a real extra virgin — an adult or a child, anybody with taste buds — they’ll never go back to the fake kind. It’s distinctive, complex, the freshest thing you’ve ever eaten. It makes you realize how rotten the other stuff is, literally rotten.”
-“Oil is already there in the olive, if only we can coax it free.”
I picked up Extra Virginity at the perfect point in my relationship with food; if you’ve read any of my recent blogs about Food, Inc., the Tristram Stuart TED Talk, or pretty much any other review I’ve done, you’ll see that I’ve become really enthusiastic about knowing my food. Olive oil may be more of a luxury good, but it’s another one that has been ruined by the mass markets of today. Mueller cares about this product a lot and has devoted a large portion of his career towards getting to the bottom of the world of olive oil. His message, his passion, and his hopes are all clear from start to finish. You’ll come away from this book cringing every time you pass clear plastic bottles of urine-colored olive oil, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll become obsessed with all the ingredients that go into your food. I have doubts that the world of olive oil will change any time soon, but Mueller’s book did change my relationship with this fruit juice…something which might just have to sadly be enough for now.