Olive Oil, More Than Just a Commodity
Olive oil- to us, it’s just food. Many of us here in the U.S. have never seen a gnarled olive tree. Olive oil comes from isle 9 in the grocery store, with no history, no context, only pictures on bottle labels depicting romantic Italian villas. Olive oil is a commodity. Merriam Webster defines commodity as “a mass-produced unspecialized product.” Reading Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller, took me on a journey through the olive growing regions of the world, beginning in Italy, passing through Spain, Greece, Australia, and California. Amongst discussion of olive oil pressing methods, olive oil tasting notes, and corruption in the olive oil industry, the pit stop that stuck with me most was Palestine. In an interview with Ehud Netzer, an archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Mueller explores the olive branch as a symbol of peace since ancient times, now warped into an emblem of conflict:
“Olive trees are power,” he said with surprising vehemence. “People here, both Palestinians and Israelis, grow them to control land- to occupy it.”
Netzer had watched olive trees being planted by the opposing factions, until their beauty had become tainted in his mind. “Now all I see is their other side. I see power struggles, I see places where rock throwers and killers can hide. In my mind, this universal symbol of peace, for Jews and Arabs alike, has become a picture of conflict, hatred, danger.”
I needed to know more. This idea that the olive branch is no longer a symbol of peace made a big impression on me. Like many in the U.S., I didn’t know much about Israel and Palestine. I knew about unresolved differences and violence, but nothing about the people and their cultures. I didn’t know the importance of the olive tree in the whole situation, named The Olive Tree Wars by the press.
Researching the olive tree wars, I came across a law from the Ottoman Empire regarding land ownership that Palestinians embrace to this day. Peasants must farm the land to maintain ownership of it. Over time, for a people who relied mostly on verbal rather than written record, olive trees became a symbol of land ownership. As Israeli settlers encroached on their space, Palestinians began planting thousands of olive trees in open space to signal their territory. The Israeli-Palestine conflict is marked by the Israelis destroying Palestinian olive trees, moving onto land Palestinians have farmed for generations, and planting their own olive groves to claim land ownership. Another alluded to theme of the story is the juxtaposition of Israel as a nation with a good economy and highly educated people against rural people of Palestine whose livelihood is dependent on farming. In an interview with Father Firas Nasib Aridah, a Catholic priest living peacefully amongst 1300 Muslims and 900 Christians in a small Jerusalem town, Adriah says,
“For our families, the olive tree isn’t just a symbol of life, it is life.”
Knowing this, how can we go on treating olive oil as a commodity? We are so far removed from it all- the cultivation of olive trees, the generations of families pressing olives to enjoy the life-giving oil, the cultural and religious significance of it. Reading the life-stories and interviews in Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil left me with a reverence for these people and their struggles. It reminded me to be conscious, to be present, and to be discerning when buying olive oil. A book about food, but really so much more, left me with a deeper appreciation for the opportunity to choose an extra-virgin olive oil in the store that’s well-made by passionate people who devote their lives to celebrating its peppery, fruity, unique flavor and not producing a tasteless commodity. With each drop of olive oil I eat, I will savor the freedom I enjoy, and say a prayer for those who struggle in this world.
For a little more info on the complicated subject of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, you may want to listen to this episode of Talk of the Nation on NPR.
Each week I contribute an article to the Whole Foods Market Cooking Boulder Website. This week I celebrated extra-virgin olive oil with a recipe for Spring Pea and Herb Salad. To see the original article and recipe notes, click on the icon below.
Spring Pea & Herb Salad with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
2 cups frozen peas
1 cup frozen shelled edamame
1 cup (a small handful) sorrel leaves, stems removed, leaves sliced into ribbons
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
1 cup watercress leaves
3 scallions or spring onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons high quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
a handful of edible flowers, for garnish
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Fill a bowl with ice water. Cook the edamame in simmering water for 4 minutes, until just tender. Using a strainer spoon, remove the edamame from the boiling water and submerge it in the ice water bath to set the color and stop the cooking. Now add the frozen peas to the boiling water and simmer for 2 minutes. Drain the peas and place them in the ice water bath. Discard the boiling water. Once the peas and edamame are chilled (just a minute or two) drain the vegetables in a colander and place them in a salad bowl.
Add the sorrel leaves, mint, watercress, and spring onions to the peas and edamame.Gently toss the salad to combine, drizzling over the extra-virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with edible flowers. The salad will taste best at room temperature after it has marinated for a few minutes.