I choose olive oil the way I choose wine: by the attractiveness and intrigue of the label.
Currently I’m cooking with Terra Delyssa, a Tunisian extra virgin olive oil in a tall, slender square bottle with a silhouette of a stylized horse on its ochre label. It’s a first-cold-pressed oil, which means it’s high in antioxidants and some good things I can’t remember without googling. The label says it’s named after “Queen Elyssa who introduced the olive oil culture to carthage in 814 B.C.”
The copy editor in me wants to insert a comma after Elyssa and to capitalize Carthage. Then my questioning mind kicks in. Was there more than one Queen Elyssa, thus it’s named after the queen of Carthage, not some other queen? And what is “olive oil culture”? What kind of oil culture did Carthage have before that? And why does she get capital letters but the city doesn’t? Did marketing people put intentional errors on the label to make it seem charmingly translated?
Reading and writing both promote curiosity. And that’s good; a sentence in the small print on an olive oil label can prompt me to learn about the history of ancient Carthage and see what language they speak in Tunisia. But curiosity can be an occupational hazard, with minutes and even hours wasted pursuing answers as a work avoidance technique. Then a writer must allow her inner editor to collaborate, to say, “Yes, this detail belongs here; that one, fascinating as it is, does not.”
I don’t know how much research Barbara Crooker did in composing “Ode to Olive Oil, ” but her choices of what to include are, to my tastes, just right.
Ode to Olive Oil
From hard green drupes
of bitter flesh, a river
of gold and green— From
trees bent like old women
whose leaves flash
olive drab to silver
in the hot breeze,
a bowlful of summer—
flesh of the tree to liquid amber—
Picked by hand, collected in nets,
the willow baskets fill with fruit,
spill into wooden boxes,
are crushed between wheels
of stone, pits and all.
You can marry it with aceto balsamico
to dress your salad, gilding emerald
and ruby leaves— You can ladle
it on white beans and sage, drizzle
it on sun-warm tomatoes, lace it
in minestrone, bathe garlic heads
for roasting. You can make it
into soap, rub it with mint leaves
for migraine. Take a spoonful
to prevent hangover. Mash
it with rosemary and all the pain
is gone from creaky knees.
Velvet on the tongue. The light
of late afternoons. I am eating
sunshine, spread on bread;
primroses open in my mouth.
my chin gleams yellow,
the opposite of a halo,
but one surely even the saints
would recognize and bless.
I love this poem for teaching me the word drupes (fruits with stones) and for its attention to the origins of olive oil and all the work necessary for the fruit of those trees in Tunisia to become liquid gold in my kitchen in Pittsburgh. I love the pairing of “willow baskets” and “wooden boxes”—the alliteration and repetition of the w b, w b; the identical rhythm; the source materials of willow and wood, and the sense of the suppleness of the first and stiffness of the second; the made containers of baskets and boxes, and even the reverse internal echo, the sk sound inside baskets and the ks sound inside boxes. I love the “you can” litany of things to do with olive oil (and the poetic implication that if I simply mash it with rosemary from my windowsill, my creaky knees will miraculously be healed). I admire the way she observes other transmutations in the final stanza.
A poetry buddy and I have been working through Crooker’s book More, which begins with the epigraph “Everybody’s got a hungry heart,” and holds many choices for the “Eating and Drinking Poems” column, among them “Salt, ” “Ode to Chocolate” and “Peaches.” I chose this one for its new-to-me dish. This recipe from Saveur calls for dried beans, but I used canned navy beans.
Write your own ode to a condiment. Research it; imagine it; let your writer and editor work together on what to tell and what to simply savor in your mind.
White Beans With Sage
1 lb. (2½ cups) dried navy or cannellini beans
1 medium onion, halved
1 head garlic, split in half
8 fresh sage leaves
5 black peppercorns
3⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place beans in a heavy pot with enough water to cover. Bring water to a boil, then strain beans and return to pot. Add fresh water to cover.
Add onion halves, garlic, 6 of the sage leaves, peppercorns, and ½ cup of the olive oil. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until beans are tender, about 45 minutes.
Cool beans, uncovered, in their cooking liquid. Strain. Remove and discard peppercorns. Transfer beans to a mixing bowl. Chop remaining 2 sage leaves and stir into beans, along with remaining ¼ cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
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