Saturday, April 16, 2011

Authentic 49er Olive Oil?

My daughter, Ally, is a little resentful of my new obsession with olive oil. She calls olive oil my "new girlfriend", and says I should marry it if I love it so much. Ouch! So I am trying to give Ally more attention, while at the same time, hoping to help her see that olive oil really can be fun and cool, and even tasty. So last weekend I took her to the new Three Stages theater at Folsom Lake College to see the Sacramento Ballet's kids' program (including an abridged, "Peter and the Wolf"), and after lunch at a European-style restaurant, we stopped at the Folsom History Museum. Ally really liked all the gold mining displays, and the old toys, and then, lo and behold, we stumbled on this:

In a glass case with a display about miners' eating habits was an olive oil bottle and a can from the Orsi Olive Oil Company. There was not much text to accompany the display, but after chatting with the museum staff, we learned that Orsi is a now defunct olive oil company that operated out of Roseville (next door to Lincoln, where we live) in the early 20th Century. So while Orsi does not really qualify as authentic 49er olive oil (it was started in 1932), there was still plenty of gold mining in the foothills in the early 20th century, and if gold miners were using olive oil, it could easily have been Orsi Olive Oil. I have not yet found any information about whether much olive oil was produced (or even consumed) in California during the Gold Rush itself, but in The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree, Judith M. Taylor tells us that, while it was Spanish missionaries who first made olive oil from olives grown in California, largely for sacramental purposes, Italian immigrants, who began coming to the state during the Gold Rush, played a big part in creating an olive oil market and an olive oil industry here. According to Taylor:

"Once they came to their senses and recovered from the mining madness, the Italian immigrants settled down and began to do the things they understood much better. With the critical mass of Italians and other Mediterranean peoples, the new market was born. Here were large numbers of people who knew and wanted olives and olive oil." [p. 39] 

The Orsi family seems to have immigrated during this period. Taylor does not mention Orsi olive oil nor their factory in Roseville, but she does include a picture of a bottle of Rancho Chico Olive Oil, which also may have been consumed by California gold miners (though much earlier than Orsi's). While Italian immigrants may have constituted the bulk of the early market for olive products in California, General John Bidwell, founder of what became Chico, California, was one of the first purveyors of California olive oil. In fact, since Bidwell's first job after emigrating to state as a pioneer was as a bookkeeper to John Sutter--the man whose lumber mill was the site of the discovery of gold in California--I think it is safe to say that the "original" and authentic 49er olive oil was Rancho Chico Pure Olive Oil produced by John Bidwell:

But while neither Rancho Chico nor Orsi olive oil are still in production, the building that housed the Orsi Olive Oil Company still stands in what is now Citrus Heights (near Roseville). Today the building is devoted to a couple of antique shops where one may or may not be able to acquire old Orsi Olive Oil tins. I went there today, and was able to purchase two cans from one of the shops, but the owner of the other shop said that his two tins were provided by Ms. April Orsi herself (who still comes back to the old building every April to visit), and he did not want to part with them. Here are some photos relative to my reconnaissance trip to the Orsi Olive Oil building:

Old photo of the Orsi Olive Oil Company plant (note the shadow of the telephone pole)
How the Orsi Olive Oil Company plant looks today (note that the building's in the shadow of a cell phone tower now)

How the Orsi Olive Oil Company plant looks today--from the back
The folks at Olive Factory Antiques gave me a great deal on these Orsi Olive Oil cans
Taylor tells us that, although the early California olive oil industry began to gain a foothold at first, it was all but put out of business, ironically, by "considerably lower prices charged for imported oil  made possible by adulteration with cheap substitutes" (p. 43). And though we like to think of our current economy as uniquely "global", Taylor informs us that, back then, European olive oil merchants would import cheap cottonseed oil from the United States, then ship it back to California "masquerading as olive oil." This is surely why each side of the Orsi can contains blurbs (one side in Italian, one side in English) stating:

"This superfine olive oil is made from selected ripe California olives. Packed under the most sanitary conditions, it is guaranteed absolutely pure under any chemical analysis. It is unexcelled [sic] for medicinal, seasoning and all cooking purposes."

Side of Orsi Olive Oil can (English)
Side of Orsi Olive Oil can (Italian)

But, as ever, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This week UC Davis released another report claiming that a majority of imported olive oils  fail to meet the highest standards of both chemical and sensory analysis, and, in response, the North American Olive Oil Association (who represent mainly importers of European olive oil)  released a statement saying the study  was "nothing more than a crass marketing ploy by  California olive oil producers". I do not know if that statement was also released in Italiano...

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's Not About the Olives

Becky, volunteer cook/server at The Eating Well Cafe, will gladly sell you one of the hundreds of bottles of 49er Olive Oil that she hand labeled

49er Olive Oil is a hit! I've actually had to turn some customers away, because while they want whole cases of oil, I am trying to keep bottles stocked at The Eating Well  for cross-marketing purposes: i.e., folks can come to The Eating Well for the oil, but hopefully stay for a meal, enjoy themselves, and come back regularly! So if you want some 49er oil, please go to The Eating Well Cafe, 1908 N. Beale Rd (530-742-5049).

For out-of-town customers, I am offering this deal: If you donate $10 or more to Harmony Health Family Resource Center, I will personally ship you a bottle of 49er Olive Oil. (Shipping costs are about $5 for a bottle, and the oil is $5/bottle, so that is why I am asking for at least a $10 donation). Please contact me directly if interested (

49er Olive Oil is proving especially popular for corporate gift-giving purposes. Ed Davis, Dean of the Social Sciences/Humanities/Business/Vocational Ed Division picked up a case in order to create gift baskets for his associates in the Yuba community theater community. Joe Muller and Alberto Ramirez, the guys from Teichert who have worked with me since May of last year to make 49er Olive Oil possible, have purchased three cases so far and have distributed bottles to the VIPs at Teichert Corporation.  The folks at Teichert especially love the artwork on the label, and said they are going to enlarge the label image into a poster to hang at their office. I myself have gifted bottles to Dean Ed Davis, to the President of the Academic Senate of Yuba College, Tim May, and to the Al Alt, Vice Chancellor of the Yuba Community College District,  and I will be giving a bottle to each of the five Trustees of YCCD and one to the outgoing Chancellor, Nikki Harrington, next week at the Board Meeting where I will be awarded tenure. Olive oil, as it turns out, is great for "greasing the wheels"...

Paul Noth cartoon from The New Yorker, 3/21/11

And wheels need to be greased because, ironically, while starting up 49er Olive Oil and producing 24 cases of oil within less then a year of operation has been challenging, the real challenges--"scaling up" our production and becoming a self-sustaining social business with significant returns to a "triple bottom line"--are still ahead. Much like in the real corporate world, our startup now needs to contemplate "going public", so to speak,  but given our three-dimensional, "triple bottom line" model, we not only need to attract more financial capital from traditional investors and financiers, but also "investors" of other forms of capital/equity (e.g., time, expertise, sweat, reputation, equipment, etc.). So while I feel a little, well, oily, for buttering up higher ups with our olive oil--olive oil proving here once again to be a great butter substitute!--it is a necessary step, I think, in order to get "buy in" from a range of other folks (i.e., students, community members, the local agriculture community, faculty, etc.). And it is this last group--faculty--who may be the hardest to win over--as I am finding out, it's gonna take more then tasty healthy liquid lipids to herd these cats!

There's been a bit of a revolution in the world of California Olive Oil: At the annual meeting of the California Olive Oil Council in Monterey a few weeks ago, the membership ousted some of the longstanding Board members, and elected several new ones, evidently with the goal of taking the California olive oil industry  to the "next level". According to one member who was at the meeting, the previous Board reflected the California Olive Oil industry of the past few decades--i.e., small-scale, "hobby" production of olive oil--whereas the new one is serious about gaining global market share for California Olive Oil, which entails other goals, like establishing strict, enforceable standards for oil quality and freshness; gaining influence over policymakers in Washington and Sacramento; and aggressively educating the public about the virtues of olive oil in general, and fresh, locally produced olive oil, in particular. The new Board includes folks like Michael Tuohy, Executive Chef of The Grange restaurant in Sacramento, and Deborah Rogers, founder of The Olive Press, and recipient of The Olive Oil Times' 2011 Producer of the Year award.

Does California have a realistic chance of competing against the big players in the international olive oil industry? Positive indicators include the fact that this year, California produced more olive oil than France for the first time (Though France's olive industry seems to have been in decline since a major frost in the 1980s), and, while the state is still far behind major producers like Italy and Spain, as I've noted previously, government subsidies for olive oil in those countries may not be sustainable much longer. Also, UC Davis is pursuing various lines of research that could benefit the industry, such as "medium density" orchards as a superior alternative to "super high density" ones, and mechanized harvesting of table olive crops, like Manzanillo (this is actually a potential threat, by the way, to the 49er Olive Oil model, since volunteer harvesters might not be more cost effective than mechanical ones...).

Personally, I applaud the effort to grow the California olive oil and table olive industries, because I think it is better, on several levels (environmental, economic, dietary, social, cultural, psychological) for Californians to produce and even export our own olive products rather than to import them. However, I would not want to see the state's olive industry become dominated by a few large firms with a traditional agribusiness model. To me, a vibrant California olive industry would be one that had many different small and medium-sized operations, with many different olive varieties in production, and multiple product lines (oils, table olives, tapenades, cosmetics, etc). Instead of chasing global market share, I'd like to see the industry pursue a goal of capturing domestic market share (and not just of the olive oil market, but those for other products as well) That said, the large corporate olive oil companies that are emerging in California at least seem a little more "three-dimensional" than firms one sees in many other industries, and one cannot deny the excellent quality of oil coming from outfits like California Olive Ranch and Corto Olive.

Still, it increasingly seems to me that one of the best ways out of the various crises we face (economic, environmental, sociological) is for Californians and Americans in general to renew an entrepreneurial spirit that combines the best of our conservative and progressive traditions: i.e., self-reliance; personal responsibility; a DIY, or do-it-yourself, "can-do", orientation; respect for the land and local history and traditions; local control and self-determination; the dignity of hard, productive work; cooperation in the pursuit of competition; etc. While today the country appears more divided and polarized than ever, I actually perceive a lot of common ground in seemingly disparate movements like the Tea Party, the Slow/Local Food movement, the Alternative Energy movement, the Entrepreneurship movement, and others.

49er Olive Oil, in any case, seems to be quite popular with folks from *all* of these strands of American life, from my conservative Christian Republican friends, to my environmentally radical students, to my urbane academic colleagues, to my Red Diaper Baby parents. And in general, there seems to be a renewed convergence around the idea that "smaller is better"--smaller government, smaller businesses, smaller agriculture, smaller marketplaces, smaller carbon footprints, smaller classrooms, etc. When our government bureaucracies and businesses and schools and workplaces get too large, we humans feel too small, and this seems to be the common feeling underlying much of the activism in America today--"too big to fail" just won't cut it anymore. Yesterday was Cesar Chavez' birthday, and he always said that his struggle wasn't about grapes or lettuce, but about the dignity of people. If America is about anything anymore--or indeed, if it ever was--it would seem to boil down to "the dignity of people", and entrepreneurship (traditional-, social-, and community-) is, at bottom, about dignity too.

An "olive" Si Se Puede (Yes we can) hat from the Cesar Chavez Foundation