Misreading Olive Oil In America

"The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all," as Mark Twain once said, and in general I agree. But the recent, resounding review by The New York Times of my new book "Extra Virginity", a cultural, criminal, culinary and commercial history of olive oil, deserves a careful read. The critic, Dwight Garner, makes so many factual errors and displays such splendid ignorance of olive oil itself that he illustrates precisely why Americans are eating such awful olive oil -- and why my book is so badly needed.

"Grody olive oil is not killing anyone," Garner writes. "We're talking about a first-world problem here. Caveat emptor." Actually, as I explain on page 110, 800 people died and 20,000 more were hospitalized, many with irreversible neurological and auto-immune damage, in the so-called "toxic oil syndrome" incident in Madrid, Spain in 1981. Now, Extra Virginity is a short book -- 206 pages excluding appendix and glossary. It is a short book about olive oil. As such, its overall body count is modest. So how did Mr. Garner miss all those casualties? Not clear, but his factual errors continue. Elsewhere I detail harmful substances like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known carcinogens, that are sometimes present in adulterated olive oil. Since when is cancer "grody"? Garner likens olive oil fraud to consumers being fooled by Aunt Jemima syrup, thinking they're buying maple syrup. He misses the central point: an Aunt Jemima label clearly mentions "corn syrup," so anyone who wants authentic maple syrup can find it, while, as I say repeatedly in my book, olive oils good and bad all have the same label.

All of which begs the question, did the reviewer actually read my book? I don't have an answer here, either, but while Dwight Garner's professional sloppiness is his own, his basic misunderstandings about olive oil are shared by millions of Americans, consumers and authorities alike, which explains why our supermarket shelves are awash with faux extra virgins. Like Garner, the FDA underestimates the seriousness of olive oil adulteration, and doesn't enforce oil quality regulations. More fundamentally, American oil is in such a bad way because oil merchants aren't held to the same truth in labeling as they are in syrup, and can package every oil, fresh or rancid, genuine or soybean-laced, with the same meaningless label: "extra virgin, first cold pressed, bla bla bla." It's as if all wines, first-growth Bordeaux and cut-rate plonk alike, were sold as "fine wine." Since consumers can't tell the difference from the label, and most haven't even had their first taste of fine oil anyway, they naturally reach for the cheaper product. Doing so they routinely get a low-grade industrial fat teeming with free radicals, instead of the healthy elixir and keystone of the Mediterranean diet which they thought they were buying.

In buying bad oil, too, they undercut honest producers of the good stuff. In fact, Garner's coy disdain for olive oil extends to the people who make it, and he misses the social and economic cost of faux extra virgins. He reckons that a character in the opening passage of my book, Flavio Zaramella, a Milanese businessman and olive oil producer, probably sounds like Don Rickles. As I explain on pages six and seven, Zaramella is terminally ill with abdominal cancer, and attributes his illness to the stress of his losing battle against oil fraud. Zaramella does not sound like Don Rickles. Garner criticizes as overwrought my portraits of oil makers and farmers -- whom he calls "sentimental peasants" -- and says they resemble "Fiddler on the Roof," a painting by Thomas Kinkade, Windham Hill piano and elves. Seen from a window high in Times Square, such people may suggest pre-conceived scenes from Broadway, the Met or Santa's workshop. Yet from closer up, in the mills and groves where I've encountered them, they are more down to earth: people speaking about losing their livelihoods, homes and way of life to fraud. (Besides, what the hell's wrong with elves?)

Garner calls my writing "unctuous -- oil coated," and concludes his piece by begging for something to cut through the oiliness: "Where there's a flask of olive oil," he writes, "you also pray to find some vinegar." Another metaphor, and perhaps the most tellingly clueless of all. As my book explains, real extra virgin olive oils are fresh-squeezed olive juices, premium foods with complex identities. There are 700 different kinds of olives in the world, which are used to make thousands of different oils, each with its own distinct style, chemical makeup and nutritional profile. Olive oils are as varied as wines. Yet for Garner, olive oil remains something to mix with vinegar -- an anonymous ingredient in vinaigrette, where any liquid fat will do. Until Americans receive correct information in places like the New York Times, the swindling will continue, and we'll carry on eating bad oil we think is good for us.

  • Garner criticizes as overwrought the description of my current residence, "in a medieval stone farmhouse surrounded by olive groves in the Ligurian countryside outside of Genoa." Aside from the fact that this phrase accurately describes where I live, it doesn't appear in my book: Garner has taken it from the book's dust jacket.
  • Then there's Garner's critical sleight of hand. He presents factual statements as if they were stylistic flourishes, humor as if it were deadpan. He objects to my observation that olive oil reveals people's "secret passions and dreams," and that I speak of olive oil's "sacred and mythic dimensions." I'm just stating the facts: my book retells several medieval miracle stories in which monks and nuns reveal their sexually charged dreams regarding olive oil, and details how olive oil permeates Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts, beliefs and rituals, just as it pervaded Greco-Roman mythology. Garner calls a purple prose foul when I say that Alissa Mattei, a well-known olive oil expert, has "almond-shaped eyes that seem to look straight into your soul"; he has excerpted this phrase from a transparently humorous, over-the-top sentence that runs ten lines in the text. He seems unwilling to allow me the option of tongue-in-cheek: when I write of "aromas and aromatics dancing like angels in my nose" after sniffing a particularly aromatic oil, I do not mean that angels at any point actually inhabited my nose.
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