Purity Test

“Guaranteed Pure . . . recommended by its delicateness and mildness as the best oil for all culinary uses, conserving and restoring health.” Olive oil trade card, 1935. (Hagley Museum and Library)

“Guaranteed Pure . . . recommended by its delicateness and mildness as the best oil for all culinary uses, conserving and restoring health.” Olive oil trade card, 1935. (Hagley Museum and Library)

Tom Mueller. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 238 pp. $25.95.

A perusal of the nonfiction shelves at any bookstore will reveal countless object biographies, with the object’s creation and impact dissected to tell a bigger story—that of the development of the modern world. My own five-minute search uncovered a long list of these popular books, which cover everything from the pencil to the hotel to the potato. Joining objects like salt and coffee on the kitchen table is a new addition to the genre: olive oil. It takes its spot at the center of the universe thanks to Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

Mueller is a journalist whose work appears regularly in the New York Times MagazineAtlantic MonthlyNational Geographic, and the New Yorker. (In fact, the article that inspired Extra Virginity first appeared in the New Yorker in 2007.) To write this book Mueller wears a number of additional hats, including that of historian and neighbor. The American expat is currently a resident of olive grove–shaded Liguria, Italy. This physical closeness to his subject is important because Mueller’s curiosity and earnest appreciation of olive oil and its production gives this book its heart.

And the heart of Italy, where generations of family farmers have tended to their bountiful crop, is where one would expect a history of olive oil to begin. But Mueller instead introduces the topic by inviting his readers to a tasting panel where a diverse mix of participants sniff and quaff a sampling of oils, stopping to comment on flavors revealed (kiwi, artichoke, fresh grass) and flaws detected (any vinegary, cucumber, or fusty tastes). Their palates reveal right off the bat the complexity of the object at hand. 

Mueller’s journey takes him to orchards, chemistry labs, and—surprisingly—courthouses. As we soon learn, the past and the present of olive oil is rife with scandal, and while this book spends much time celebrating what has for millennia made the olive such a versatile and essential plant, it also devotes equal time to documenting attempts to market fraudulent, adulterated oils to the world. As Mueller is told by artisan oil producer Paolo Pasquali, “Too much love kills, even more than hatred. . . . Oil belongs to the most sacred things, which are paradoxically the first things that we vilify. ‘Grease the palm,’ ‘Oil the works’—oil has become a synonym for corruption” (p. 131).

To tell the complete story Mueller’s narrative travels back and forth in time, with characters like Pasquali populating the past and present of olive cultivation. Making their appearance are Spartan athletes and Renaissance-era scientists, modern Palestinian farmers, and members of the Italian Mafia. Olive oil has always been big business; in fact, it was to the Bronze Age what fossil fuels are to the Petroleum Age. Little surprise then that men have long sought to control and profit from it, often through illegitimate means. Manufacturers increase their profits by cutting their products with lower-quality or cheaper nut oils, particularly as worldwide demand for extra-virgin olive oil skyrockets. Mueller reveals that little we find on our grocery shelves is the real thing—a point made through the tasting of the extra-virgin oils offered by the farmers Mueller visits.  

Mueller ponders this dilemma in his epilogue, asking, “Are we witnessing a renaissance in olive oil, or the death of an industry? Will extra-virgin olive oil become the next premium food phenomenon—the next microbrewery beer, Starbucks coffee, or quality chocolate—or will it sink into the anonymous mass of fat that is the legacy of our post-industrial food supply?” (p. 203).

By the end of the book the reader has little choice but to answer “yes” and “yes”; characteristic of other “history of the world in one object” books, Extra Virginity offers no neat wrap-up. Long after publication these objects of choice will still be journeying through our lives. In the case of the olive, the story continues with the fight against olive-oil fraud and adulteration. Mueller is now an advocate: his new website, named after the book, states its mission as starting “a grassroots revolution in oil quality, one post, conversation, and oil tasting at a time.”

Jennifer Dionisio is the associate editor of Chemical Heritage.