Olive Oil & Food Culture

“ The olive tree is surely the richest gift from heaven” THOMAS JEFFERSON

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I was introduced to good olive oil over 70 years ago. I was just a baby, too young to be cognizant of what I was being fed, but every Italian mother in those days would prepare for their little ones, a little broth made of carrots and celery, to be the base for pastini, ( tiny pieces of pasta) and enriched of course with olive oil. Today in Italy when visited by Italians with babies, the practice is still followed. When a friend stayed with us for a month with little 3 year old Eduardo, first thing in the morning Angela, Eduardo’s mother, while having her coffee, would start making a broth with carrots and celery to add pastini later (small noodles). Daily changes were made as she might often substituted pastini with mashed carrots, greens, squash, potatoes, or other seasonal vegetable. The dish may vary, but always topped with that olive oil just as my mother in law did when feeding Jason, my youngest as a child. When asked if it was my diet, my mother responded in the positive. It was an inexpensive yet healthy dish, easy for a baby to digest, warm comfort food in any weather, bathed in olive oil most likely made by a family member or trusted friend.

Needless to say, baby food was out of the question in those days and if present, not trusted by the old fashion Italian mamas. What I do recall is always having olive oil on the dinner table as a youngster to enrich dishes, definitely for our dinner salads, and if a drop should fall onto the table, to be recycled onto our skin as a moisturizer. We were never to waste a single drop of this liquid gold. If I had the flu, a teaspoon of olive oil could be my medicine. If I had a cold, of course olive oil might be helpful. If I was constipated, no question of its beneficial properties. If I had the opposite problem, lower bowel alimentary stoppage, well I am not sure, don’t recall, but would not be surprised if my old fashion mama would have given me olive oil for that as well.

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I hated hair washing days in elementary school. That meant the night before I would have to sleep with a head bathed in olive oil, wrapped and enveloped into a plastic cap until morning, It was then that I often told my mom, “ enough with this oil”. None of my friends with modern american mothers had their kids do this. I hated even sleeping with the smell of Zia Michellina’s freshly made oil from Abruzzo. My friends used perfumed items. Maybe for economical reasons, but creams, perfumes, scented soaps and conditioners, never had a chance to compete with my mom and her olive oil.

When off to college I was able to escape from my mother’s liquid gold and become an American. That is when I learned how to use colorful salad dressings with strange gluey like substances that at first I could not tolerate but wanting to be an American, so learned to adopt. Married life brought olive oil back into my kitchen, but never appreciated or omnipresent as it was in my youth. That is until 1985 when moving to Italy and finding myself on a farm of neglected olive trees. I had no knowledge of what to do with them but knew they were too sacred to cut down.

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America is one of 23 countries producing olive oil. The industry is monitored, controlled, and regulated by the International Council of Olive Oil producers, an international agency with headquarters in Madrid Spain. The IOOC is the agency that classifies olive oil according to the various categories. If meeting certain standards one’s olive oil can use the approved verbiage on their product verifying that what is in the bottle is as noted on the label. Unfortunately until the last two years, 95% of all imported olive oils were mislabeled. America, the only producer that is not a member of the IOOC was not controlled , therefore any oil could have been called extra virgin, without meeting the standards of the IOOC: FDA had little concern being that they had more important matters to attend to. In the USA olive oil is controlled by the US Dept of Agriculture that had classified American oil as fancy, standard and sub -standard according to their regulations, set up in 1948 and never revised until many demands of the California Olive Oil Producers led to new classifications in 2010. Although a great step forward, still there is a need for the FDA to become involved to verify the contents of the bottle which a USDA logo does not certify.

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