Friday, January 13, 2012

The Popcorn Economy

"Olive, My Love", a music video of the 2012 Community Olive Harvest

Of course the big news since my last post is the successful completion of the Second Annual Community Olive Harvest. The video above tells the story, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then video, at 24 frames per second, can be a prodigious storyteller. In any event, I can't really put into words the joy I experience while picking olives with others, on a beautiful day, in a gorgeous spot, all for the purpose of raising funds for a good cause, so the video, hopefully, captures some of that experience, and perhaps can help attract others to future events. Darro and Olivia, for their part, have been busily preparing their property to receive agritourists. I was not able to go, but earlier this week they held a catered event in their newly tiled and painted tasting room, and I'm told that they successfully created a few new converts to the olive oil faith, and specifically, to Berkeley Olive Groves 1913's early and late oils. Meanwhile, other olive oil producers seem to be pursuing the similar goals of creating educational olive oil agritourism experiences. Lucero Olive Oil, for example, has been holding events with tastings, live music, mill tours, etc. and indeed, the whole town of Corning is branding itself as a destination spot for olive oil afficionados. Joe Mueller, who used to manage the Teichert Grove, is now working with a group in the Capay Valley to develop some sort of olive oil attraction. I do not know the details yet, but I think there may be a connection to the Indian tribe that runs the Cache Valley Casino. Sounds big.  

In short many in the olive oil industry seem to realize that in order to grow, more Americans need to be educated about and turned on to olive oil, but on the other hand, there still seems to me to be quite a bit of elitism in the industry that prevents it from doing all it could/should to expand appreciation for olive oil. For example, one often hears the observation that UC Davis is going to do for olive oil what it did for the wine industry--i.e., take it from a small, hobby-based community to a global industry, and that today, the California olive oil industry is where the wine industry was in the early 70s or so. But I personally don't think the wine industry should be the role model for the California olive oil community. Wine is an often overpriced product in this country, whose cultural meaning is associated with things like snobbery, pretentiousness, and elitism. Drinking wine seems to require considerable stores of both financial capital and cultural capital (i.e., knowledge and ability to appreciate wine). But while this sort of exclusivity works well for wine producers (or at least did when the economy was booming and folks had discretionary spending for luxury goods), I believe American olive oil should strive to be accessible as opposed to exclusive, and simple to understand, as opposed to complex and aloof. I got to see Tom Mueller's book release event for Extra Virginity at UC Davis, and he likes to refer to extra virgin olive oil as "fresh fruit juice" because he thinks this will help demystify the substance and help consumers correctly distinguish between imported oils and the fresher domestic ones. In that sense, he is pushing olive oil in the direction of American beer makers, who, I believe, also challenged European imports by comparing beer to "fresh bread", and marketing American beers as fresher and therefore superior to imported beers. I certainly agree with the goals of demystifying olive oil and emphasizing freshness and domestic production as key selling points, but I don't find the "fruit juice" metaphor very appealing for some reason. It just seems sort of patronizing to refer to oil as juice, because it is not accurate, and therefore sort of dishonest. Olive oil is not olive juice, so why call it that? If the main problem with European oils, according to Tom Mueller, is their lack of honesty, then why is calling olive oil "juice" better? A better strategy for the industry, it seems to me, is to stop defining California olive oil in opposition to European oil, and to promote it simply as a healthy, tasty, useful product made in California for the American consumer.

From l to r: Olive Oyl Popped Corn, a Whirley-Pop, one of the last bottles of last year's 49er Olive Oil

So, I was happy to receive a package of Olive Oyl Popped Corn that my wife picked up at The Nugget  Market (speaking of overpriced and snobby...). Here is a product that promotes olive oil for the right reasons--it is a healthier, tastier fat to use to make popped corn than alternatives like butter--but does so matter-of-factly, in a distinctly American cultural frame--no images of Italian villas or ancient vined columns here, just Popeye's girlfriend in all her gawky glory. And it is good! Of course, the oil they used to pop the corn probably came from Italy, but you can't have everything! Unless, of course, you purchase a Whirley-Pop, which I did for my wife for Christmas. With this handy-dandy gizmo you can use a tablespoon of 49er Olive Oil (or your favorite brand of California olive oil) to make a half-cup of delicious, healthy popped corn in less time than the microwave stuff! That is, if you can find popping corn anywhere in your community, which unfortunately I could not in mine during X-mas time, so we couldn't try out the Whirly-Pop right away. Which brings me to my theory of the Popcorn Economy:

When the economy was booming and American consumerism was at its high point, microwave popcorn virtually replaced old-fashioned popping corn. Why make your own, when Orville Redenbacher would do it for you, in a variety of mouth-watering flavors? But in the current economy, folks seem to be embracing a range of domestic pleasures, possibly while enjoying "staycations" and a general reduction in their rate of discretionary spending. So, when I got the Whirley-Pop, it was the last one in the store (and showed signs of being returned already, so the store may have been sold out of Whirly-Pops at some point), and then, when I went to the grocery store to buy popping corn, there wasn't any. When I asked the clerk about it, we went to the popcorn area, which featured almost an entire aisle of microwave popcorns, but only one sliver of shelf space for pop corn kernels, and they were completely sold out. Same story at two other grocery stores in town--sold out of regular pop corn kernels. So my theory is that popping one's own corn has become popular again, because it is cheaper, more fun, and healthier for one's family than nuking some kernels in a "this side up" package marinating in real imitation movie theater butter-like topping. Only the popcorn industry hasn't caught up yet, so the stores are quickly selling out of Whirly-Pops and kernels. If my theory is correct, then Olive Oyl Popped Corn may not have a corner on the olive oil-popcorn market, and folks will also buy olive oil to make their own home-made popcorn.  Anyway, I finally did find some kernels to pop, but...

The kernels I bought are from Pop Secret (a major producer of microwave popcorn), and although American food labels generally seem to have less information than food labels in many European nations, this label does reveal a few secrets about Pop Secret. One is that the company evidently uses a proprietary crop known as "Pop Secret Premium Jumbo Popping Corn", and the other is that Pop Secret is really a product from Diamond Foods, a major food producer in California's Central Valley. I am not quite sure how it would be possible to copyright corn, unless Diamond is using genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), but my point is that my quest to pop an honest bowl of popcorn for my family is incomplete: Even when I did find actual kernels to pop in the Whirley-Pop, they are more like real imitation corn kernels, complete with their own corporate trademark,  than a simple grain grown in the earth, somewhere reasonably close by. The Whirley-Pop, for its part, was bought at Target, a large French multinational, but it is produced by Wabash Valley Farms, in Indiana, and seems to me to be an example of good, old-fashioned American ingenuity and quality craftsmanship. In the Popcorn Economy, we need more enterprises like Wabash Family Farms, who offer products their workers are ostensibly proud to make and sell, and that families are happy to buy and use, and fewer companies like Pop Secret, which sells a slickly packaged product that may or may not be very honest in terms of how it is made and labeled. In such an economy, I think consumers would embrace a California olive oil that is presented as fresh, simple, and real (especially if it is inexpensive), but they might turn away from California olive oils that are presented as highly sophisticated,  exotic, or status-conferring. I'm not saying the California Olive Oil Council should take a cue from the California Raisin Advisory Board and start airing TV commercials with singing animated olives (Though the Led Zeppelin tune in the video above could be pretty cute!), but if all of the industry's outreach is in exclusive places like Napa and Whole Foods and to the affluent folks who frequent them, I doubt the industry will grow in the ways imagined by its current leaders. Regular folks need and deserve to be clued into the benefits of olives, too. Olive Power to the People!

1 comment:

  1. Marc, what a cool project you have taken on and I can't wait to try your olive oil! I'd be glad to share a recipe for using it on an upcoming post on your blog if you'd like one. There is nothing like a fresh, homemade bowl of popcorn made on the stove. I've been using coconut oil to pop it but now I'll have to try olive oil.