Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller. New York: Norton, 2012. 238 pages. SHU Library: Popular Reading M (center shelves of the first floor, Ryan-Matura Library)
Olive oil has a very long and multifaceted history as a religious element, medicine, beauty aid --and food. For 5000 it has charaterized the life and ancient cuisines of the Mediterranean, as ubiquitous in the age of Homer as the current Euro-crash. In 2007 Tom Mueller began to investigate the dark side of olive oil corruption in The New Yorker, and he became oil-obsessed, an ancient condition. This book expands and deepens his previous writing.
So what is olive oil virginity? Virgin olive oils are made by mechanical methods alone: the fruit is washed and crushed; the pulp is malaxed (softened by kneading) and centrifuged; and the resulting oil is filtered. No chemical, thermal or nonphysical (reesterification) are used. "Extra Virgin" is an oil grade of excellent color and odor and free fatty acid content of 0.8g per 100g (0.8%).
The olive oil trade is frequently corrupt, however. Much of the oil that appears as extra-virgin in supermarkets is not, and sometimes not even made from olives. In many areas small artisan producers practicing ancient and local traditions must compete with globalized multinationals dominated by fraud and deceptive practices. Olive oil has become a unique prism through which to view the problems and promise of global trade: high-quality olive oil is now available where it was never available before, but in so doing depends upon a trade system and semi- or openly-criminal syndicates which inevitably corrupt it.
Beyond trade, olive oil also has a particular place in religious and medical practices (and sometimes those commingle). The very teminology of olive oil is redolent of religion: how many products other than oil, wood, wax, and honey can be described as "virgin"? (--and all of those are also Christian sacramental elements or constituents).
You deserve to know where you olive oil comes from, whether you simply eat pizza or cook gourmet foods. You should have the assurance that your oil is pure whether you apply it to your skin, receive it in token of blessing, or simply celebrate its special and ancient taste. Extra Virginity will tell you all this and more in entertaining, memorable, even delicious prose, stories, and poetry.