I love the ways wireless technology is used in the kitchen. If you’re stumped for a new recipe idea, just grab your phone, do a quick search, and you’ll have an abundance of recipes to browse. But there are some things technology can’t replace, like my old family recipes.
Still in their original boxes and binders, my recipes were clipped from magazines and newspapers. Some were written on penny postcards and mailed to my mother by cousins who lived across the country. I should make digital copies for safekeeping, but I love these originals. Handling them is like touching a piece of history.
One thing that stands out in these mid-century antique recipes is how much tastes change over time. Ingredients used in the 1960s might not be recognizable today. For example, some recipes call for “1 stick of Oleo.” What on earth was Oleo? Originally, it was a butter substitute developed by a French chemist in response to a challenge from Napoleon, who wanted a cheap butter substitute for his navy; the spread was beef tallow churned with milk and was called oleomargarine by its inventor. Over time, the formula changed and in the U.S. it was colloquially referred to as “oleo.” Today, oleomargarine, or just margarine, is made from vegetable oils.
The other mystery fat in mid-century recipes is simply referred to as “salad oil.” This was a vegetable oil, usually corn oil, and was the go-to choice for use in stove-top cooking as well as salad dressing. That seems odd in a day and age when recipes simply list EVOO. Today, everyone knows that EVOO means “extra virgin olive oil.” But EVOO was not even available in grocery stores in this country until the 1980s. Today, olive oil is available at specialty stores, with imported oils from all over the world available for tasting before you purchase.
Olive trees have been around as long as people have existed. Exactly when did American tastes change, with olive oil replacing “salad oil” as the go-to household cooking oil?
It’s difficult to say where olive trees were first grown. Remember the Biblical story about the Great Flood in the Old Testament? Noah released a dove every day to see if the waters were receding, and the day the dove returned bearing an olive branch was noted as a day of peace between people and God. To this day, the term “extend an olive branch” is used to denote an offer of peace or reconciliation.
We know that olive trees spread from Mesopotamia and North Africa to Greece, then on to Italy. As the cultivation of olive trees spread, many distinct varieties and flavors were developed over time. Since olive trees then took more than a decade to begin producing, the going was slow. But because olives thrived in poor soils and the fruit was easy to harvest, olive trees spread steadily westward through the Mediterranean basin and Europe.
Olive oil was first used as fuel to burn in lamps. In ancient Greece, olive oil was used as medicine; Greek athletes in ancient Olympics covered their bodies with olive oil. They thought the oil would protect the skin and benefit muscle function. But as edible olives and their oil began to be used in cooking, the value of the oil grew. By 2000 BC, trade documents show that olive oil was five times more costly than wine and more than twice as costly as other seed oils.
In the United States, Spanish settlers brought olive trees from Spain. These large black olives continued to be cultivated, becoming popular at the Thanksgiving table. Countless kids have been entertained because they can stick black olives onto their thumbs and fingers.
By the 1970s, studies promoting the Mediterranean Diet favored the reasonable use of healthy fats such of olive oil. That gave rise to the popularity of olive oil, and EVOO, in the United States and around the world. This slow-growing crop is now harvested in America, Asia, Africa and Australia.
Many people wonder what’s so special about EVOO. Olive oil was first made by crushing olives by hand in stone mortars or millstones. Methods evolved to extracting oil using hydraulic presses and then to the industrial use of centrifuges, hot water and solvents to separate the oils from solids. Some industrial methods alter the flavor of the oil. But the prized flavor of extra virgin olive oil is dictated by many rules, such as being made from fresh olives that are free of blemishes and that are crushed without using heat or solvents, within 24 hours of harvest.
In the past half century, we’ve evolved from using oleo and salad oil to olive oil tastings. Home cooks now pair olive oils with certain dishes, much like wine is paired with food. What lies ahead in the next 50 years? I wonder if EVOO will seem as foreign to cooks in the 2060s as oleo is today. HLM
Sources: explorecrete.com, hortsci.ashspublications.org, mentalfloss.com, oliveoiltimes.com and springer.com.