The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
By Tom Mueller
W.W. Norton; 238 pages; $26
We Americans are latecomers to the romance of olive oil. Only in recent decades have we embraced it as an aspirational foodstuff, something with which we might dress our microgreens or anoint our grilled branzino. Back in the culinary dark ages of 1939, Life magazine, in an article about Joe DiMaggio, slurred the product as intolerably ethnic, commending the Yankee Clipper for not being too unpalatably Italian American. “He never reeks of garlic,” the magazine said, and “instead of olive oil … he keeps his hair slick with water.”
As bigoted and backward as this statement was, it speaks to the multipurpose utility of olive oil—a utility that, as Tom Mueller points out in Extra Virginity, has been cherished by European cultures for millennia. Olive oil is not only a food and a hair tonic. In ancient Greek society, Mueller writes, it was also used as “fuel, skin lotion, contraceptive, detergent, preservative, pesticide, perfume, and adornment, as well as a cure for heart ailments, stomach aches, hair loss, flatulence, and excessive perspiration.” So valuable was this oil in antiquity that it further functioned as a sort of currency, bestowed upon victorious athletes in lieu of prize money.
Still, Mueller’s primary interest is in olive oil as something that tastes good and makes other foods taste better. Extra Virginity is a work of culinary nonfiction, a burgeoning genre whose standard-bearer is Mark Kurlansky, the author of, among other works, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997) and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (2006). By zeroing in each time on the story of a single comestible, Kurlansky ends up relating a refreshing (if briny) alternate history of humanity itself.
If anything, olive oil is even more deserving a subject than any Kurlansky has taken on: immediately relatable (we’ve all dunked bread into that shallow dish of the stuff in an Italian restaurant) yet dimly understood and fraught with intrigue. As you may or may not know, depending on the amount of alarmist-foodie journalism you take in, virtually all olive oil sold in supermarkets is subpar crud, and much of what is marketed and celebrated as the highest grade, extra virgin, is adulterated product.
Olive-oil fraud is so pervasive that much of Extra Virginity is less an appreciation of a remarkable liquid than it is an indictment of Big Food, akin to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland—only in this case, the big baddies are mostly Italians. Mueller is an American writer based in Italy, the heart of the olive-oil industry, and early in the book he comes face-to-face with two men widely upheld as this industry’s villains: Domenico Ribatti, formerly the world’s biggest dealer in bulk olive oil, who sold to such supermarket giants as Bertolli and Filippo Berio but later served time in prison for, among other things, passing off Turkish hazelnut oil refined in his plant as olive oil; and Leonardo Marseglia, a prominent importer who has faced charges that he traffics in contraband, selling cheap non-European oils as Italian-made and falsifying documents to avoid paying import tariffs.
Ribatti and Marseglia offer Mueller denials, slippery evasions, and charm offensives that evoke another Italian slickster, one whose name never comes up in Extra Virginity: Silvio Berlusconi. The upshot of the industry’s tacit endorsement of oil fraud—the seeming complicity of customs officials, the watchdogs who look the other way as seed oils and low-grade lampante (literally, “lamp oil”) are refined and sold as quality olive oils—is that this is simply the Italian way: a merry “everybody does it” kind of naughtiness. This is precisely the sort of outmoded and delusional thinking that led to Berlusconi’s downfall, and, more urgently, to Italy’s debt crisis.
Mueller’s book went to press before Berlusconi’s ouster as Prime Minister, but still, you wish the author had connected the dots between oil fraud and the larger political culture in which it has thrived. There are intimations of this—a mention of a 2007 investigation by the European Union that determined that 95 percent of all known misappropriations of European agricultural subsidies transpired in Italy—but Mueller doesn’t push his own investigation further.
It also would have been nice to learn more about why there is unprecedented demand for Italian-branded olive oil. Mueller barely delves into the whirl of culinary, social, and health-related factors that led to America’s becoming the third-largest olive-oil consuming country: the emergence of olio di oliva as a status food, for example, or the TV evangelism of Rachael Ray and her “EVOO” catchphrase.
Extra Virginity is neither as deep nor as fun as it could be. This is not for lack of industriousness on the author’s part—there are excursions to oliocentric subcultures in Israel, Crete, Cyprus, Spain, Australia, and California, among other places—but there’s a surfacey nature to its chapters, a sense that they are a set of loosely connected articles rather than a sustained, Kurlansky-style narrative. (Indeed, Extra Virginity grew out of a 2007 “Letter from Italy” article in the New Yorker.)
There’s also a sense of tonal uncertainty, in which the promise of a widescreen history or a tough-minded exposé yields at times to the rhapsodic-rustique tone of Peter Mayle’s twee-times-three Provence books. The heroic Pugliese proprietress of a bona fide artisanal extra-virgin producer has “dark brown eyes that are warm yet penetrating, like a hawk’s,” and her son has “large, dark, serious eyes that watch you unblinkingly, though their intensity is softened by a faint, unsarcastic smile that never leaves his lips.” Future Mueller interviewees keen to maintain low profiles are advised to wear sunglasses.
The truth is, Mueller’s subject matter is so rich (if low in saturated fats) that it could accommodate his multitude of approaches if his book were longer, bulkier, more epic. At a relatively slim 200-plus pages, Extra Virginity seems undernourished.