Thursday, April 9, 2009

Green Gold

This is what my family calls olive oil. As in all Greek families, this rich, green oil is taken very seriously. Twice a year, or so, we receive a container of oil sent direct from the “motherland.” We don’t joke with what is found in the local grocery store – even if it says “extra virgin.” The vat is sent directly from Sparta, Greece, where my grandfather once had his own olive orchard, via New York to Chicago. It seems we aren’t the only Greeks in the U.S. yearning for a piece of our homeland. There are several Greek-American owned import companies serving restaurants and Greek-American families just as mine – insisting no other country in the world has a more genuine olive.

It is said, after all, that the olive came to being on the mythical island of Crete, where it was first cultivated around 2500 B.C. Although many other countries, such as Spain, Italy, Tunisia, and the U.S., now cultivate the smooth fruit, it remains the Greeks that lifted this tiny fruit to a level of, dare I say, reverence. Indeed, the ancient Greeks believed that olive oil was a gift from the gods. In Greek mythology, Zeus held a competition to award the patronage of Attica. Athena, presenting the olive tree, won this competition because of the olive tree’s “soothing (and delicious) oil, welcome shade, and valuable wood.” The olive branch and olive oil were “symbolic of all that was good and noble in mankind, and of performance and perseverance.”

Realizing the extensive trip the olive oil makes from Sparta to Chicago, we take great care in emptying the vat. It’s a kind of ritual: my mother prepares glass bottles, clean and dry, on the counter, and places a deep pan in the kitchen sink lest a single drop of the oil spills as my father hoists the vat and fills the bottles over the sink using only a funnel (of course, there are pumps to do this messy work, but we like to keep the process dramatic). Once all the bottles are filled, we pour some of the gold on a plate, dip a fresh piece of bread, and marvel.

Greeks grow up cherishing the oil – from our baptism as babies, during which the priest anoints our mini hands and feet with olive oil in the sign of the cross; to earaches as adolescents, when our mothers dip a cotton ball in the silky oil and place it in our ear to ease the pain. Without question though, we treasure olive oil for its miraculous work in the kitchen. You would be hard-pressed to find a Greek dish that does not require olive oil: our salads dressed in it, our pitas brushed with it, our fish garnished with it. Greeks do not know the meaning of butter and cream (we leave that to the French). Even Lenten meals at times seem gluttonous as we devour an assortment of vegetables – eggplants, zucchinis, okra, beans, potatoes - all slathered with the rich, pungent oil (and perhaps some crushed tomato).

Happily for all lovers of green gold, the FDA stated in 2004 that the monounsaturated fats found in olive oil may actually reduce one’s risk of coronary heart disease. In fact, the “Mediterranean Diet” has become all the rage in recent years. In style or not, olive oil remains a staple in my kitchen, as I hope it is in many.

1 comment:

ett094 said...

The Greek Ode to the Olive. beautiful.

what is next, FETA?