Monday, August 27, 2007

Like an Extra Virgin

I'm not much of a cook, so when I first saw EVOO on a menu, it took me a sec to translate this into Extra Virgin Olive Oil. But you see it once, you see it a million times. (Just like all those other menu items that didn't used to exist, then  - all of a sudden - they're on every middle-brow restaurant menu: focaccia, chicken Caesar salad, sorbet. Where do these things come from?)

If you can set the concept of just what an "extra virgin" might be aside, there are apparently strict guidelines on what sets EVOO apart from the plain old VOO in the gold can that sits in my cupboard.

From a recent New Yorker article by Tom Mueller on olive oil fraud, I learned that what separates the V's from the Extra V's is the free acidity percentage. (Free acidity tells you how decomposed the olives were when they entered the vat.) There's also something a grade below VOO, and it's something called lampante, or lamp oil. (I had best check my tin of olive oil to make sure it's not lampante.)

Whatever it says on the bottle or can, what's inside may or may not even be olive oil. As Mueller's article recounts, there's a long history of olive oil fraud, in which sunflower seed, hazelnut, and canola oil is doctored up with dyes and flavorings. And less you think of the olive oil industry as peasants filling baskets full of olives on their sun-kissed hillsides, then carefully make the oil in ancient wooden presses - or even stomp on the olives, like Lucy when she and Ethel made the wine - olive oil, like most agriculture these days, is a huge business.  The lesser oils are often smuggled into Italy in tankers, where it's miraculously transformed into EVOO.

All this smuggling of seed oils (and semi-legitimate importing of lesser olive oil), does, of course, have an impact on those delightful peasant farmers you're thinking of. It makes it hard for them to compete with the real thing.

In any case, Mueller's article is fascinating reading - even for non-cooks like myself who don't hang around gourmet shops agonizing over just how much to spend on a bottle of EVOO.

Despite not cooking, however, I do have a long history with olive oil.

When I was a kid, my mother cooked with vegetable oil, but we did have a small, ancient bottle of olive oil around, which was used to cure earaches. A bit of olive oil was warmed up, eyedropped into your ear, and stopped up with a cotton ball. I can't remember if it worked or not, but I don't remember having many earaches.

I do remember having dandruff in eighth grade. Far be it for my family to actually go out and buy Head and Shoulders so that their self-conscious 13 year old could take care of what was very likely a minor but magnified case of dandruff.

No, my mother's remedy called for olive oil, and here instructions to me were "use olive oil."

Now, if she had told me to rub a little olive oil into my scalp, and then shampoo it out, I would have done so.

Left to my own imagination, I massaged the entire bottle of olive oil into my scalp and went to bed.

In the morning, I awoke to a sodden pillow and odiferous hair plastered to my head.

In a panic, I hopped in the shower and tried to wash the olive oil out.

There was not, however, enough time to do enough lather-rinse-repeats to rid me of the results of my olive oil treatment before it was time to leave for school.

Hard to believe, but the thought of letting me stay home and keep on shampooing never occurred to my parents, and the thought of skipping school never occurred to me.

Off I went, and I remember walking to school - it was early March - with my knit cap (red wool with white angora trim) only partially covering the fiasco that was my head of hair.

The day was one of agony.

Curiously, I do not remember anyone making fun of me. Given that the eighth graders at Our Lady of the Angels Grammar School were not known for their kindness and compassion, I can only guess that, what to me seemed like an obvious case of olive oil head must have passed for no more than an average hormonally-prompted greasy hair day.

In any case, I'm guessing that the bottle in our house was lampante.

At thirteen, I might have been what you'd call an extra virgin, but there's no way that the olive oil was.

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