Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Legacy of the Olive Eaters

One of the most frightening articles I read this summer was a New Yorker piece on the massive fraud in Italy's olive oil industry. Apparently, I may never have tasted real olive oil in my life. Every year, hundreds of thousands of tons of oil from places like North Africa, Spain and Turkey are shipped to Italy and passed off as genuine Italian virgin olive oil. Sometimes the counterfeit oil isn't even from olives, but made from a substitute like canola. All this is done to make 'authenticity' cheaper and more profitable for the distributors. According to the article, fraud is so widespread that true genuineness isn't profitable any more--small farmers who grow actual Italian olives can't sell their produce.

Unfortunately, I was not too surprised to learn that big olive oil companies have no financial investment in the authenticity of their own product. But Leonardo Marseglia, one of the biggest distributors, doesn't even have an aesthetic investment in the genuineness of his oil. The Italian government and the EU feel they have to protect what they see as an essential part of the country's cultural heritage (although there is evidence that olive oil fraud is thousands of years old), and so have whole departments committed to investigating olive oil counterfeit. But Marseglia seems to think that 'authenticity' is itself a fraud: “When someone has two silos of oil, one Italian and the other foreign, you just have to switch them: the other one becomes Italian oil, this one becomes foreign," he told the article's author. If legitimacy can be so easily fabricated, he seems to be saying, why put any stock in it at all?

I read the article during breaks from a temporary messenger job I had at a well-known designer's office in Manhattan's fashion district, a neighborhood where immigrant-run, sweatshop-like fabric factories occupy adjoining floors of the same building as studios selling multi-thousand dollar items. It's the only industry I know where the people at the top walk across the street to do face-to-face business with the people at the bottom. Despite my surroundings, the olive oil expose put me in mind of a trip to Italy I took last spring. In both Florence and Rome I heard some extremely good gypsy street musicians (and some very bad ones). The groups always had one melody instrument--usually a violin or saxophone--and at least one accompanying instrument--usually a guitar or acoustic bass. The bassists always used only three strings, always made of brightly colored nylon strings which they would snap percussively. Performances consisted of various songs strung together into seamless medleys, with no tempo change or pause between melodies--only a chorus or two of each song would be played before moving to the next. But there were a few tunes that came up in idiosyncratic renditions again and again. The two I heard most often were the theme from The Godfather and "I Did it My Way."

These tunes aren't even Italian, let alone traditional folk music. However, they may be obvious choices for the street ensembles, who count on exploiting the picturesque notion of Italy that American tourists devour in stateside movies and television. But at the same time, the gypsy musicians' repertoire strikes me as odd. It romanticizes the notion of a self-styled, gangster-aristocrat Mafioso--the kind of person who left Italy to escape things like gypsy buskers, and who probably would be the first to spit at someone sawing away at a cheap violin next to their restaurant table.