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...

1 comment: