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“Extra Virginity – The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” … Implications for Southern-Italian American Cultural History

“Extra Virginity – The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” … Implications for Southern-Italian American Cultural History

Tom Verso (May 24, 2014)

No doubt this book is of great interest to culinary aficionados; but it is NOT a ‘food book’! Tom Muller writes: “Just as olive oil, a powerful solvent, brings out essential, sometimes unexpected flavors in food, it also reveals the ESSENCE of Certain People: their Hidden Contradictions, their secret passions and dreams.” (emp.+) /// /// This book is a brilliant social history of olive oil traversing ‘time’ from 7,000 B.C. to the present, and ‘space’ globally. Moreover, it is an important book for students of the history and culture of near 17 million southern-Italian Americans … “revealing the Essence of their Hidden Contradictions.” The most important ‘contradiction’: the propensity to identify with northern Italian culture when they are in fact Mediterranean. /// /// While olive trees are grown and olive oil manufactured all round the world today; nevertheless, both are uniquely Mediterranean. The Mediterranean culture generally and Italy south of Rome particularly cannot be differentiated from the olive and its oil. In short, the Mediterranean essence of southern Italian culture and its American offshoot is captured in the history of olive oil. /// /// Significantly, Muller points out that the culture of northern Italy was not based on olive oil – i.e. not Mediterranean. Northern Italian culture was born with the northern EurAsian conquest, and the diet of northern Italy from the time of the barbarian invasions at the end of the Roman Empire down to the present symbolizes the difference between the two cultures. /// /// He writes: “When the Germanic tribes of northern and eastern Europe overran [northern Italy] in the fourth and fifth centuries, they revolutionized its culinary fashions and brought the revenge of animal fat on imperial oil.” Similarly, he goes on to say: “The first time my wife saw us sipping [‘strippaggio’ - testing] olive oil, her expression slid slowly from disbelief to disgust. ‘I’d rather eat butter cubes,’ she said. My wife is from Milan, where the traditional cuisine is based on butter and lard, not oil.”


 Truth in Advertising

Food aficionados generally and Italian foodies particularly will find this very well written and readable book informative and enjoyable. More importantly, there is a very important lesson for average home food buyers – Don’t believe everything you read on a label!!!
Virtually everyone labors under the misconception that “extra virgin – first cold press” is akin to Gertrude Stein’s: “A rose is a rose…” – Not So! If Tom Mueller is to be believed, there is a very good chance that the oil behind that label is NOT ‘extra virgin’ and almost certainly NOT ‘first cold press’.
Extra Virgin” is defined as:
“The highest quality grade of olive oil, which according to standards established by the IOC, the EU, and other governing bodies, must meet a series of chemical requirements (free fatty acidity of 0.8 percent or lower, peroxides at less than 20 milliequivalents per kilogram, etc.), and be able to pass a panel test which demonstrates both that it possesses some detectable level of olive fruitiness, and that it is free of taste flaws. (p. 209 emp.+)
However, Mueller has been very authoritatively informed:
“… according to the law, if an oil contains just one of these defects— one hint of fusty, a trace of brine— it’s not extra virgin grade. Basta, end of story.
In fact, [for example] with the flaws this extra virgin supermarket oil has, it’s classed as lampante: ‘lamp oil.’ Which can only be legally sold as fuel: it’s only fit for burning, not eating. Trouble is, the law is never enforced.
This is what nearly everyone in the world thinks is extra virgin olive oil! This stuff is killing quality oil, (pp. 4-5 emp.+).
And, “First Cold Press” – forget-about-it!
“An outdated production term, now used for marketing purposes and largely devoid of meaning.
Until a half-century ago oil was made with hydraulic presses… nowadays a rare occurrence. (pp. 207-208).
“Today, most oil-makers use the centrifuge system and steel hammer and disk mills instead of mill stones...” (p.17, 21)
However, this is not to imply that the new technology necessarily produces inferior oil. Rather, consumers are being misled to believe that oil is superior if the label reads “First Cold Press”. That phrase is just a marketing ploy to get consumers to buy the product.
Moreover, if that were the only misrepresentation it would not be so bad. The gross ‘criminal’ distortions of oil labled ‘extra virgin’ is the real problem. 
“The enormous popularity of the “Made in Italy” label worldwide makes it an appetizing target for food fraudsters, who earn an estimated € 60 billion a year selling counterfeit or adulterated faux-Italian foods.”
Four Italian products in ten are actually foreign imports relabeled as Italian, often with false certificates of authenticity:
- over a third of pasta manufactured in Italy is made from imported wheat,
- half of mozzarella is produced with German milk and curds, and
- two-thirds of prosciutto comes from foreign hogs.”   (p. 45-46 emp.+).
"OLIVE OIL is one of the most frequently adulterated food products in the EU; within Europe, the problem is particularly acute in Italy, the leading importer, consumer, and exporter of olive oil and the hub of the world olive oil trade."
“Many olive oil scams involve straightforward mixing of low-grade vegetable oils, flavored and colored with plant extracts and sold in tins and bottles emblazoned with Italian flags or paintings of Mount Vesuvius, together with the folksy names of imaginary producers.
More sophisticated scams, typically take place in high-tech laboratories, where cheaper oils of various kinds, made from olives but also from seeds and nuts, are processed and blended in ways that are extremely difficult to detect with chemical tests. (p. 55 emp.+).
While the book is filled with such contemporary food facts that will appeal to food aficionados, Extra Virginity …” is NOT just another ‘foodie book’.
Tom Muller’s book is an amazing study of the history, culture, economics, technology and industry of olive oil traversing time from 7,000 B.C. to the present, and space globally.
Adding to its scholarly character, there is a 15 page Glossary with detail definitions relevant to olives and oil; e.g.
Triglycerides (or triacylglycerols) – The main constituent of vegetable and animal fats, and a vital energy storage source for plants and animals. Triglycerides consist of three fatty acids bonded to a glycerol molecule.   (p. 219).
Also, 35 delightful photo inserts nicely compliment the narrative.
However, the scholarly details do not take away from the readability of the book. 
Given the many and extended conversations the author had with olive cultivators and oil producers all over the world (literally), from small growers to officers in international companies, the book’s narrative reads like a ‘can’t-put-it-down’ novel: the people (characters) are ‘fascinating’, and the events (plot) are intriguing.
In short, this book is a great read and highly informative – don’t miss it!
Southern-Italian Americana – Implications
No doubt Muller's book is of great interest to Italian culinary aficionados. However, it has special, albeit tacit, significance for southern-Italian Americans.
In terms of this blog’s relentless theme (i.e. the vast majority of the 17 million Americans who self identify themselves as of Italian descent, are more accurately Americans of SOUTHERN-Italian descent - e.g. see: here), Mueller’s book is especially meaningful.
He writes:
“Just as olive oil, a powerful solvent, brings out essential, sometimes unexpected flavors in food, it also reveals the ESSENCE of Certain People: their Hidden Contradictions, their secret passions and dreams.” (p. 7 emp.+)
Italy south of Rome, the Patria Meridionale of southern-Italian Americans, is in ESSENCE a Mediterranean culture. Mueller’s book vividly demonstrates that FACT and reveals the “hidden contradiction” of southern-Italian Americana.
Though a process of “cultural lobotomy” similar to, if not identical with, that inflicted upon the people of southern Italy by the North after the 1860 conquest and subordination of the South – aka “Risorgimento” (see Pino Aprile’s book “Terroni” here here), southern-Italian Americans have come to think of their culture in terms of northern Italy.
They think that their historic language is the Tuscan dialect – taught in schools and paraded in mass media
They think their historic literature is Tuscan e.g. Dante – taught in schools
and paraded in mass media.
They think their artistic tradition is the Tuscan Renaissance – taught in schools and paraded in mass media.
And, believing bottle labels, they even think that excellent olive oil comes from Tuscany.
Muller quotes an olive cultivator in Puglia who reports:
“Every year at the beginning of the harvest, the trucks park in front of the mills, load up with coratina olives, and head north to Tuscany, Umbria , Liguria … Fleets of eighteen-wheelers filled with olives from Puglia being unloaded in the night in mills throughout the north” …
[Sardonically] She grinned: “You know, those famous oil-making regions, where they grow so few olives.” (p. 26 emp.+)
No! Patria Meridionale language is not Tuscan.
No! Patria Meridionale literature is not Tuscan.
No! Patria Meridionale art is not Tuscan.
Yes! Tuscan olive oil is made from Patria Meridionale olives.
The culture of Italy south of Rome is Mediterranean and decidedly different than the culture (not race!) of northern Italy. The history of olive cultivation and oil production, as presented in Muller’s book, is indicative of that FACT!
He writes:
“Wild olives have thrived in Puglia’s hot, dry climate since the last ice age. (p. 14)
Hints of the first human uses of the oleaster [i.e. wild olives] are scattered throughout the archaeological strata of the Paleolithic and Neolithic across the Mediterranean. From Spain and the French Riviera to North Africa, the Greek islands, and Israel, archaeologists have discovered heaps of oleaster pits which suggest they were being collected.
Mysterious 7,000-year-old petroglyphs in the barren Ahaggar Mountains, deep in the Sahara, show dancing men with crowns of olive leaves, showing the importance of olives at a time when a milder climate permitted them to grow there (p. 28 emp.+).
The oleaster was probably first domesticated in Palestine in the fourth millennium (p. 29)
"Four thousand years ago, olive oil was already a driving force in the Mediterranean world: for machines , people, and the imagination." (pp. 26-27).

The table below lists just a few of the historic highlights indicative of the fundamental relationship between olive oil and Mediterranean culture.
10,000 B.C.
(all dates understood as Circa)
Wild olives have thrived in Puglia since the last ice age
5,000 B.C.
Mysterious petroglyphs in the barren Ahaggar Mountains, deep in the Sahara, show dancing men with crowns of olive leaves, showing the importance of olives at a time
4,000-3,000 B.C.
The oleaster was probably first domesticated in Palestine
3500 B.C.
Upper Egypt, jars of scented oils and unguents appear in a predynastic tomb
1850 B.C.
Cyprus: grindstones and a massive press for making olive oil, along with twelve enormous pithoi capable of holding a total of 3,000 liters of oil.
1,000 B.C.
At Ekron in Palestine, olive mill with a battery of one hundred massive presses which used logs for lever arms and were capable of producing about 500,000 liters a year
1,000 B.C.
Homer tells of Odysseus’ on the island of Scheria (i.e. Trapani Sicily) … Nausicaa and her handmaidens give him a jar of olive oil, which he spreads over his naked, salt-encrusted body
…. Note: This blog has reported the preponderance of evidence put forth by classical scholars indicating that the places and locations described in the "Odyssey" were in fact places in Sicily and its general area. (see: here, here and here)
Roman Times
Monte Testaccio, tourist attraction in Rome, composed of 25 million amphorae, dumped here by the Romans between the first and third centuries AD: represents something like 1.75 billion liters of olive oil
Puglia has sixty million olive trees owned by 250,000 pugliesi – an average of 240 trees per person
In short, this table shows just a small part of the role of olive oil in Mediterranean cultures.
“From the first human uses of the oleaster are scattered throughout the archaeological strata of the Paleolithic and Neolithic across the Mediterranean ..." Down to the present, the olive and olive oil are the common denominator across Mediterranean cultures.
Olive Oil – Not just food!
This blog has assiduously avoided posting any articles about food, rejecting the obvious pervasive propensity to define southern-Italian American culture in terms of food.

To appreciate the profound cultural dimensions of olive oil in Mediterranean history, one has to understand that it was
much much more than food.
One of the many virtues of Mueller’s book is the emphasis he placed on the non-food role olive oil played in the Mediterranean world. For example, he writes:
By the third millennium BC, perfumes were so widely used in the Near East that specific styles of perfume-holder, made in alabaster and later known in Greek as 'aryballoi', were mass-produced, and are frequently found by archaeologists.
They were used in massage and beautification, and some were considered aphrodisiacs. After all, Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire, was thought to be the inventor of perfumes; myths said she rose from the sea near Cyprus, an island known for millennia as the center of perfume production.
The Cretans also exported large quantities of oil to Egypt, where it was used to make unguents and cosmetics as well as to embalm mummies. By the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians were producing their own oil. Olive trees had become an important motif in Egyptian art, and amphorae of oil were a common grave good (the tomb of Tutankhamen was amply supplied). (p. 30)

The Greeks used oil as fuel to heat water and light the gyms and bathhouses, and as an essential ingredient of certain sports, like wrestling and gladiatorial combat.  Above all, bathers and athletes, often assisted by slaves called 'unctores' ("oilers"), slathered their bodies with ample quanties of oil; after exercising, they used thin metal blades called 'trigiles' to scrape away the oil, together with a residue of dirt and perspiration.  
Oil was the economic lifeblood of many Greek city-states. People were prepared to spend the same amont of money on olive oil back then as they do on petroleum today. Governments went to great lengths to ensure a steady supply of it. ( p 38 emp. +)
Beyond Cultural Lobotomy (No History – No Culture )
In sum, if Americans of southern-Italian descent are to develop an authentic and genuine culture, they must first regain there lost pre-Ellis Island history and understand that their historic culture is not north of Rome. Muller's book is a major contribution to that end.
Italian Americans are a Mediterranean people with a cultural history that reaches back many many thousands of years traversing the Mediterranean basin, long before the EurAsians settled in northern Italy with their butter / lard diets and fur coats after the fall of Rome.

Would that the Italian American literati
‘teaching’ (as it were) southern-Italian Americans in university Italian Studies and Italian American Studies Programs embrace the indubitable FACTS of southern-Italian American history, and teach their people the history of their culture before Ellis Island and South of Rome.

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South of Rome–West of Ellis Island | i-ITALY


South of Rome–West of Ellis Island | i-ITALY