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extra virginity

27 december 2014

Friends have been recommending Tom Mueller's Extra Virginity for a while, and I was lucky enough to get it for Christmas this year.

I think a lot about olive oil, and have described in those thoughts aloud "my search for good cheap extra-virgin oil." Mueller would say that I'm searching for a contradiction in terms. Olive oil may be good, and it may be extra-virgin, but neither of those categories overlap with "cheap." The main theme of the book is the incompatibility of the phrase "extra-virgin" with mass-produced supermarket goods – and the impending crisis for high-end producers if the term continues to be diluted and degraded.

Mueller is evangelistic about the benefits ‐ culinary and salutary – of good extra-virgin olive oil, benefits one can't have on the cheap. One forgives him his rhetoric because he explains complicated issues surrounding the culture, manufacture, and commerce of oil so well. One even forgives the entire book, if one is me, for being what I've settled on calling "interview-driven": my bête noire among nonfiction styles. Mueller never just tells you stuff. He travels to Puglia, Crete, Andalusia, or wherever, to talk to fascinating beautiful people who tell him stuff which he proceeds to relate to you. I would rather eliminate the middlemen and just get the facts. But in Extra Virginity, the facts depend on how you perceive them: so there's a glimmer of justification for the journalistic style of the exposition. When it comes to olive oil, there may be no disinterested perspective.

Mueller is dazzled by wealth, possessions, and aristocracy. In interview after interview, he notes a person's stuff, pedigree, and roots (which are usually literal, as you'd imagine, in the form of the ancient familial olive groves they live among). Interviewing scientist Alissa Mattei, Mueller can't wait to tell us that her mother was a baronessa ("you can bet her eyes are the baronessa's," he says, 91). Extra Virginity is dedicated to training a reading public in how to appreciate olive oil – and how to appreciate the inherent nobility involved in such appreciation. Time and again, an artisanal producer will talk about their passion for olive oil, how it isn't about the money: and we realize why; they're swimming in money to start with. Mueller quotes a (hilariously rich) Spanish high-end oilmaker:

[Large producers are] trying to drive down the quality of extra virgin oil to the lowest common denominator, to turn olive oil into a commodity. (153)
Yet if the extensive global history of olive oil that Mueller assembles elsewhere in his book is any indication, olive oil has been exactly that, a commodity, since early prehistory. The dynamics of large-scale production and trade are precisely what give the substance its character, and much of its charm.

One in fact begins to sympathize far more with the smugglers, fraudsters, and corporate shills who acknowledge that it is about the money: in particular, the money of consumers who may not be able to afford the handcrafted products of the trustifundia.

Smugglers and fraudsters there are, for instance, and Mueller gives us excellent reasons to consider them villains. He documents the bustling trade in generic oil from the Middle East and North Africa, oil which is shipped into Italy, relabeled as Italian extra virgin, and then sold at prices that greatly undercut the real thing. Some of this oil isn't even from olives (fraud), some of it is of distinctly low quality (fraud), all of it is spirited into the EU (smuggling), and much of it commands subsidies from the EU on top of the illicit profits, under the guise of supporting European olive production (more fraud).

I prefer my oil cheap, everyday, and tasty. As I noted in writing about olives here before, I like to go to halal markets and get honestly-labeled oil from Tunisia, Lebanon, Turkey – at least I suppose honestly labeled; I don't see why they'd lie. For all I know (as I've also alluded) the stuff is paraffin with a bit of food coloring. Yet the cheap oil that I buy often has the peppery and bitter qualities that are supposed to distinguish great oil. What if it's counterfeit and good? Or to be more sanguine, what if there's just plain good oil out there that doesn't have to be coaxed from individually-named olives by venerable family retainers and their mules?

Mueller, however, alleges widespread fraud in the general American food supply (and not just involving olive oil). Supermarket oil in this country, he says, is a random mixture of ingredients mocked up to emulate the great products of the heel of Italy. The "sublime" of his subtitle can only be experienced when you taste oil just from the mill: it's a perishable, local, evanescent pleasure. Of course, at this point, the reader wonders why buy olive oil at all. Unless one has an unlimited journalist's expense account to travel the world and sip from the founts of olivaceous pleasure, one really should just give up and eat Crisco.

I like Extra Virginity anyway. For one thing, between the interviews, Mueller gives an elaborate cultural history of the olive in a more standard expository third-person style: still lively, but more focused, more informative, and less star-struck. And for another, it never hurts to take a subject seriously. The book is earnest and enthusiastic, even though it's premised on lack: I've had experiences you cannot aspire to, so your life is blighted. Mueller actually says, after tasting some precious oils at the Culinary Institute of America's oleoteca,

I thought of people in the Midwest … people who simply can't get good oil, or even get oil that's actually made from olives. (157)
Poor us; but on the other hand, since we couldn't afford it if we could get it, or rather can't afford to live near, or even get near, its source, what's the pity about? We'll make do with accessible thrills, thank you.

I've bought a bit of local-ish olive oil in recent years, truly excellent stuff from Texas groves that is bringing the inaccessible a little closer to home. At a price, though I'd rather pay that price for local products that I imagine are more likely to be genuine: who'd start a boutique olive farm in the middle of Texas scrubland just to rebottle commodity oil? I'll continue to support local operations and I'll get even warier of "supermarket oil" of dubious provenance.

And it is a problem, one of nomenclature, but with serious economic impact, that the oil I get from responsible Texas start-ups is called "extra virgin" just like some mysterious bottle that once spent a week or two in Italy on its way from Dovunque to my Kroger's. Mueller documents the indifference of governing agencies to oil quality. For complicated political reasons, authorities have been less willing to give olive oil the same scrutiny and protections they've extended to wine, cheese, and even beer. It's as if all the beef in the supermarket were "Prime": the consumer would lose any sense that price correlated with distinction, and even label claims that a certain grade were beyond prime would be of limited power to pry more dollars from them. Of course, price does not correlate with distinction even in the case of beef, wine, cheese, and beer. But even the unsympathetic aristocrats of Extra Virginity have a point: their products are different, at any rate, and they deserve a grade that reflects that difference.

Mueller, Tom. Extra Virginity: The sublime and scandalous world of olive oil. 2012 New York: Norton, 2013. TP 683 .M845

NOTE: I believe I stole the term "trustifundia" from Jay Caspian Kang's novel The Dead Do Not Improve. At least, I don't think it's appeared anywhere else, and I seem to remember it from that book. If so, all credit to Kang for a truly useful coinage.