Are olives for eating? (A historical perspective)


Everyone knows that Chihuahuas and Great Danes are the same species. Because “dog” as a category is so familiar, it’s easy to not be stupefied. How could these two animals be the same thing? They are so enormously different!

This post is about olives, and I think the familiarity of olives has less to the same dulling of stupefaction. How can it be that the black, soft, bland, pitted things that come out of a can and go on cheap tacos are the same thing as the oily, stiff, bitter things that come out in little dishes at Mediterranean restaurants?

I turned to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, which told me that there were at least three ways to cure olives. First, there is a lactic acid fermentation using a alkaline wash:

Fresh olives are practically inedible thanks to their ample endowment of a bitter phenolic substance, oleuropein, and its relatives. […] Olive fermentation may have been discovered when early peoples learned to remove the bitterness by soaking the fruit in changes of water. By Roman times, the soaking water was often supplemented with alkaline wood ashes, which cut the debittering period from weeks to hours. […] Alkaline conditions actually break bitter oleuropein down, and also breach the waxy outer cuticle and dissolve cell-wall materials. These effects make the fruit as a whole more permeable to the salt brine that follows (after a wash and acid treatment to neutralize the alkalinity), and help the fermentation proceed faster. Lactic acid bacteria are the main fermenters […]

Second, there is an alcoholic fermentation:

Olives are also fermented without any preliminary leaching or alkaline treatment, but this results in a different kind of fermentation. Nutrients for the microbes in the brine diffuse very slowly from the flesh through the waxy cuticle, and the intact phenolic compounds inhibit microbial growth. So the temperature is kept low […], and yeasts rather than lactic acid bacteria dominate in a slow alcoholic fermentation that takes as long as a year. This method is usually applied to black ripe olives (Greek, Italian Gaeta, French Nicoise). They turn out more bitter and less tart than the pretreated kinds […] and have a distinctively winey, fruity aroma.

Third, there is an industrial process to make the weird taco olives:

Unfermented “ripe black olives” are an invention of the California canning industry. They’re made from unripe green olives […] But their unique character is determined by repeated brief lye treatments to leach out and break down oleuropein, and the addition of an iron solution and dissolved oxygen to react with phenolic compounds and turn the skin black. […] They have a bland, cooked flavor and often some residual alkalinity, which gives them a slippery quality.

I like the fermented olives much more than the taco olives, which makes me wonder why other people like the taco olives so much better. I imagine it’s mostly because they are bland, but I figured there was a historical element too. I turned to Fabrizia Lanza’s short book, Olive: A Global History. (I found many other books, most of which were about olive oil and not eating olives. I found Mort Rosenblum’s Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit autobiographical and immensely boring. I couldn’t bring myself to check out books like Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity.)

Lanza’s book brought some surprises. The first, and most tricky one, is that we don’t have a lot of evidence about the ancient consumption of olives. We know a lot about olive oil, which ancient sources are very enthusiastic about. Olive oil was as a cosmetic, as a ritual ointment (“Messiah” comes from the Hebrew for “anointed one”), as a lamp oil, and as a lubricant for machinery.

Although tangential, some of these uses are fascinating. Ancient Greek athletes would compete naked. After they had gotten sweaty and dirty, then would go for a bath. But before getting in the bath, they would lather their bodies with olive oil and then scrape off the sweat/dirt/oil mixture with a special tool. This fascinates me. It would be very hard for someone to convince me, after a long job, to cover myself in oil.

The ancients, however, thought covering themselves in olive oil was a great thing. There is a story that Democritus, who explored the idea that the universe was made up of indivisible “atoms”, said that his long life was due to “honey on the inside, olive oil on the outside.” Pollio Romilius told Augustus that his long life was due to “honey wine on the inside, olive oil on the outside”. Pliny the Elder said:

Duo sunt liquores humanis corporibus gratissimi, intus vini, foris olei […]

That is: “Two liquids are especially agreeable to the human body: wine inside and oil outside.”

(The thing about oil for lighting is interesting too. Now we have electric lights. Before that we had kerosene lamps. Before that we had whale-oil candles. Before that we had land-animal-fat candles. Candles became popular in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire because the disruption in trade meant that it was hard to get olive oil.)

Olive oil, being so valuable was apparently not widely eaten before the Etruscans began producing large quantities of olives in Italy. Jo-Ann Shelton’s As the Romans Did includes some information about the peasant diet in Rome:

Moretum […] is the name given to a food item common among the poor. It consisted of a medley of vegetables and herbs, ground together and mixed with vinegar, oil (if available), and cheese (if available). The poor, who often could not afford oil and cheese, mixed whatever plants, domestic or wild, were available to them. Although some scholar translate moretum as “salad”, it was probably much more similar to modern pesto sauce […]

And although the oil may have been expensive, there are Roman sources with recipes for curing olives, and olives may have been part of the wealthy dinner table. It seems very likely to me that the people that have lived and worked around olive trees have been eating olives since the beginning.

To get back to my original question, what’s the deal with the weird taco olives? The story of olives and oil in the New World starts with the Spanish, who brought olive trees here as early as 1520. Lanza says it was one of the first trees transplanted to the New World. And although olives and olive oil were part of the culture of people of Mediterranean descent living in America, olives only became part of the national consciousness in the 1920s, when the martini became popular.

The story of the taco olive is a strange and sad one. Freda Ehmann, who was born in Germany in 1839, moved to America and married another German immigrant at age 18. He died, so she moved to California to be with her son. She subsequently lost all her money, which she put into her son’s business, which failed. To make ends meet, she started pickling olives. She began using lye and putting them in tins, inventing the third curing process described by McGee. By 1905, hers were the olive of choice in “fancy hotels and restaurants nationwide”. But then, “[i]n 1919, improperly processed olives caused the deaths from botulism of 35 people in the East and Midwest.” Ehmann’s business failed. She died at age 93.

Just as Americans are accustomed to this weird and, I argue, inferior olive, Americans are also accustomed to bad olive oil. Oil oxidizes with time and upon exposure to light, so good oil is fresh and sold in opaque tins. Oxidized oil is brown, has lost its tanginess, and tastes rancid. Olive oil has become ever more popular since the Mediterranean diet got tied up with good health, but it was only in 2006 that olive oil became the best-selling vegetable oil in the UK.

Even though a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both dogs, and a taco olive and a Greek olive are both olives, you should probably have a strong preference for one over the other.