“Extra Virginity” Book Review Has Plenty of Quips, But Misses the Point

A review of Tom Mueller’s book by New York Times writer Dwight Garner begins by making a caricature of one of the people Mueller profiles: “There’s a funny moment when an olive oil expert holds up a bottle that’s covered with dubious claims: ‘100 percent Italian,’ ‘cold-pressed,’ ‘extra virgin.'”

Garner continues: “The man shakes his head and says, perhaps with a hint of Don Rickles in his voice, ‘Extra virgin? What’s this oil got to do with virginity? This is a whore.’”
The man, Flavio Zaramella, is a terminally-ill Milanese businessman and expert olive oil taster who, among others profiled in the book, is working to shed light on the corrupt practices in the olive oil industry.

The leap to the American wisecrack comedian Don Rickles is a far one, but it’s one of many in the book review by Garner, who seems more concerned with stringing together a succession of one-liners himself, than considering the serious subject of food fraud.

The lengths Garner goes to find his stabs are surprising, including a critical assessment of the dust flap description of the author’s home. Mueller does indeed live in a medieval stone farmhouse surrounded by olive groves in the Ligurian countryside outside of Genoa — (not a nineteenth century colonial modern in Frenchtown, New Jersey). But Garner calls the jacket detail “the prose equivalent of Corinthian leather.”

Out of this immensely interesting book Garner plucks three words here, four words there, to build another quip: “One man here has a ‘hint of wonder in his voice.’ Another ‘laughed, high-pitched and merrily.’ A woman has ‘almond-shaped eyes that seem to look straight into your soul.’ This same woman has ‘a twinkle in her eye.’

Garner snaps, “it is as if we are reading about elves.”

I never felt that way, because I read those words in the context of the rich portraits of intriguing people Mueller visited around the world — instead of pulling a few snippets out for a clumsy book review.

When Garner comes around to what’s really at stake, it’s with a belittling tone of sarcasm. “The news Mr. Mueller brings about extra virgin olive oil — E.V.O.O., as Rachael Ray likes to put it — is alarming,” Garner writes (for some reason including in the sentence a hyperlink to an obscure web store that sells gift baskets but offers no clue to the identity of its owner or from where it is operated — not unlike the anonymity of adulterated olive oils). And of course, Garner knows if you ever really want to say something is alarming, you don’t let it share a sentence with Rachel Ray.

Then there’s this: “The Food and Drug Administration considers this adulteration a low priority. Grody olive oil is not killing anyone. We’re talking about a first-world problem here. Caveat emptor.” Notice the absence of a colon or commas that would help attribute each of those sentiments to the FDA. Garner conveniently omitted the colon so you don’t know where the downplay is coming from — the FDA or Garner himself.

But caveat emptor didn’t help the 800 people who died and 20,000 hospitalized from olive oil adulteration in Madrid in 1981 (and not much has changed since then). Olive oil fraud is a serious global health issue and its ongoing practice endangers the economic and cultural stability of olive oil producing regions througout the world — perils that are only now coming to the forefront, thanks in large part to Tom Mueller.

Garner saves the best for last, as he tosses aside thousands of years of history, culture, corruption and the dedication of producers who craft one of the world’s healthiest foods: “Where there’s a flask of olive oil, you also pray to find some vinegar.” Right. My sentiments exactly, Mr. Garner.

It would be too bad if Garner’s review, clearly constructed to be entertaining instead of a serious look at the important topics Mueller brings to light, prevented people from reading this essential book.

Book Review: Olive Oil’s Growers, Chemists, Cooks and Crooks, by Dwight Garner

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Curtis Cord

Executive Editor, Olive Oil Times | New Yorkoliveoilvoice

In 2010, Curtis Cord turned a personal blog, where he compared the tastes of olive oils encountered along his travels, into Olive Oil Times, now the most-read publication about olive oil. In 2013, Cord organized the first annual New York International Olive Oil Competition and, in 2014 he launched the International Olive Oil School. Cord is regularly cited in media for his unique perspectives as an impartial insider in the olive oil world.

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This article was last updated October 12, 2014 - 7:54 PM (GMT-5)

  • OliveChirper

    Let’s not get hyperbolic about the problem. Yes, the NYT review is a snide hatchet job, but olive oil adulteration *is* in the end a story about the  grubby defrauding of consumers and the bankruptcy of some good, honest producers, not a serious food safety issue. Yes, people died from “toxic oil syndrome” (and this academic chapter indicates the final death toll was more like 1900:

    … but this was for reasons that bear only a remote connection to the white collar crime of substituting seed oils and mediocre  olive oil for ‘liquid gold.’

    As we speak, aggressive deregulation (and filibustering of reform) combined with budget starvation mean FDA and USDA can’t get the mandate or money to prevent people from dying of toxic uremic syndrome from bagged greens and burgers. It’s good to clean up the market, but olive oil adulteration is a story about people being defrauded and denied an honest living, not poisoned to death. 

    • Tom Mueller

      Yes and no, OliveChirper.  True, the average fake extra virgin doesn’t compare in virulence or danger with botulism, anthrax or even salmonella.  But the “toxic oil syndrome” (and yes, I intentionally used the most conservative death figure) is one of the worst food poisoning events in modern history, and it does concern a product being sold as olive oil.  Olive oil adulteration often involves the unknowing consumption of olive pomace oil, which has been the subject of several Europe-wide recalls because of high levels of carcinogenic PAHs.  Questions about allergic reactions to adulterants like soybean and peanut oil remain.

      Perhaps most importantly, this “white collar crime,” as you put it, is one of the most graphic examples of how little official oversight there is in US food, and how a consumer can believe he’s buying one thing – liquid health, the keystone of the Mediterranean diet – and be getting something very different instead.  I’m admittedly deeper into olive oil than is normal, or even healthy (!), but I see this as a gleaming tip of the iceberg of food fraud, and a worthwhile subject to shine spotlights on.

      • OliveChirper

        … and I agree, and greatly enjoyed the book. I wasn’t intending to dismiss the importance of olive oil adulteration: I was objecting to what I think is a descent into sensationalism in overzealous response to an (unfair) review of the book.  And, I suppose I was both expressing some sympathy for the regulatory agencies’ plight, and indulging in a bit of despair about the sorry state of food regulation in the USA.  Your book goes through multiple specific examples of olive oil
        adulteration, and we both know that barely touches the depth of it; yet,
        aside from the remarkable, fatal confluence of events leading up to
        ‘toxic oil,’ there is very little equivalent to recent pathogen-induced food safety crises in fresh produce and meat in the last couple of years. Bait-and-switch dilution of quality EVOO with soybean oil is suboptimal, health-wise, but it doesn’t equate to  E. coli O157:H7 in your bagged salad.

        Clearly, again, with the sheer number of fatal and crippling cases of
        food-borne illness we have seen in the USA in the last few years, along with the magnitude of the gap between a
        shrinking FDA budget and an enormous rise in food imports, the regulatory agencies are
        going to have to set priorities. Without dismissing the depth and outrageousness of olive oil fraud, it is none the less unrealistic and unreasonable to equate olive oil adulteration with getting farms HACCP compliant and increasing inspections of imports from developing countries, or to expect them to be given similar priority. People concerned about all of these issues need to write to their elected representatives and demand that FDA be given the budget to enforce existing regulations, and that stronger food safety laws and enforcement authority be granted to the regulators.

    • Jemmy

      it is a very serious health issue to those with hypothyroidism and breast cancer who must avoid soy.

  • Weho

    Being in the olive oil industry, we’ve prayed for someone like Tom Mueller to come around. The book he wrote is amazing and I hope it helps to get the message out. People like Dwight Garner aren’t helping the cause.

  • http://twitter.com/Polly_Tics Barbara

    In reviewing Garner’s review, your use of the term “clumsy” is far too generous.

  • Cheesejenkins

    curtis, i understand your ire, and that of many of us who think the book is a godsend.  but listen to me:  dwight garner in my opinion is the finest journalist critic working today.  he is brilliant, and the quality of his writing is marvelous in all respects.  he has dazzled me and my colleagues on numerous occasions on numerous subjects.  he is just not capable of being flippant or dismissive.  i have felt abandoned since i read Extra Virginity.  I am distraught mueller didn’t write more about the artisanal olive oil industry, one far, far removed from the subject matter and thesis of EV.   Fairway doesn’t cotton much to the big brands.  i heap scorn on all the big brands IN PRINT in signage in 9 stores.  i import olive oils from farm families who wouldn’t know HOW to commit fraud, who would never have even thought about such a thing happening at their level.  My ire is directed at Mueller — not at a book reviewer.  Extra Virginity is purely about the big business of olive oil, and as a result, it is being used to paint us all with the same brush used to expose the big business of olive oil, an endeavor as far from what I and many fine farm families do (create and promote the world’s finest olive oils) as olive oil is from linseed oil.   

  • Anonymous

    I was unable to put the book down once I got into it. Actually listened to the audio version on CD.  Sure, book is not perfect. So what…go find a better book that spells it all out when it comes to olive oil. Mueller is the patron saint of olive oil.

    Really not much hope for the average consumer to get decent olive oil in the supermarket or health food store. And I’ve tried dozens of oils. Throwing $ at the hope of buying good oil wont help a bit.
    Take these 2 samples I purchased. The $4.99 Spanish olive oil is much better than the $16.75 bottle of Italian oil on the right.

    Now, the $16.75 bottle has fancy name and ‘Fruttato’ classification as well as certification and licensing numbers.
    Here is a descritpion from a website selling the oil…
    “The Colavita Fruttato Extra Virgin Olive Oil really stands out for its flavor, color and smooth peppery taste.. The Fruttato comes from the first cold pressing of the young olives picked at just the right stage of maturity and is filtered before bottling to remove small bits of fruit or pit. Its fruity full-bodied flavor is ideal for salads and soups.Colavita Fruttato is perfect for final drizzle over pasta, meats, fish and poultry. Use where a strong, full-bodied olive taste will be needed.”

    From that description you would think it is heaven – yet it is nothing like the description says. To me I would not use it for eating at all – it is garbage.
    At least the Spanish oil had a smidgen of olive oil flavor to it. Now maybe the Spanish oil is artificially flavored? I don’t know? But from my limited testing at home, the $4.99 oil beats the $16.75 oil hands down.
    I had to laugh on a recent shopping trip for scouting new oils to try. Crisco is now selling extra virgin olive oil. So you know when Crisco jumps on board things have gone to hell.
    I’d tell any consumer to buy all the olive oil you want. Take it home, try it out then take it back to the place of purchase for the inevitable refund from your disappointing purchase. Just make sure you buy from a store that has a liberal ‘satisfaction guaranteed’ refund policy.
    Or is you wish to save some time, try the ‘Private Selection’ Spanish oil in the photo. Available at Ralph’s or Kroger’s. Best crappy olive oil I came across in a supermarket.I’d give it a ‘D’, maybe even a D+. The other Private Selection oils I tried all got F’s.
    I had big hopes for this Spanish oil after reading the label…

    “Cold Pressed Extra Virgin made from picual, arbequina & ojiblanca olives for a strong bold flavor and peppery finish.”

    If I rated it by their claims it would get an F too. My ‘D’ rating is for the fact that it exhibits a ‘modicum of real olive oil flavor’, nothing else.
    It is not like the producers don’t know how to make a decent oil. They can describe what is a fine oil on their labels, but they won’t give it to you…you only get their words to chew on.  
    …Thank you St. Mueller for enlightening us all!

  • Shootnseas

    Olive oil is a staple of Mediterranean diet. For Garner & “posters” here to belittle adulteration as insignificant displays an appalling ignorance.  Most of the low grade oils used are saturated fats aka trans fats and Omega 6  which are like daggers to people with prostate cancer meaning only 50% of the male  population over 60 yrs old, Having purchased olive oil from alledgely reputable purveyors  that tasted like transmission fluid I was delighted by the book (and even found the link to this site:-)

  • RDL33

    People bemoan the politicians, the economy, and human frailties yet they pretty well get what they deserve.  Olive oil adulteration parallels coffee and even milk, a situation where most would not like, or possibly recognize the purest form of the product if they tasted it.  Of course it is more general than that i.e. print, where there is more sensationalism than enlightenment, but this is only a Comment.