Five days ago, around four in the morning, I was wide awake. The afternoon before I had indulged in one too many espressos and I was feeling the consequences. I sat in the kitchen, with a mug of chamomile tea and attempted to review my notes from my course on Italian food and identity. I highlighted the points from the lecture that I found to be the most fascinating; I couldn’t wait to tell my roommates that pasta was eaten with sugar up until the nineteenth century, and that olive oil is a relatively recent condiment for food.
I thought they would flip out when they heard that last tidbit. Lard? Butter? Instead of their beloved olive oil? They almost cried when we ran out of homegrown oil last week. Marina diligently trudged to the supermarket, returning, head held down, with a store bought bottle. I swore I even heard Ilaria whimper. Despite the sadness that this event brought to Via Belvedere 10, I must say that most everyone seemed more embarrassed than anything else. It was the utter humiliation of the thing that upset them the most. I felt myself wrapped up in the sorrow and confusion. I too wanted to call la mamma to bemoan the situation, rail against the injustice, and beg for a new shipment ASAP. Alas seconds before I reached for my cell phone, I remembered that olive groves have never graced the cold and northerly soil of Cambridge, Massachusetts and on top of that I didn’t have enough credit on my phone to call the United States for more than 12 seconds.
The kitchen door opened. Marina stepped inside, surprised to see me awake at such an hour. She reached for a glass and sat down to drink a cup of water before returning to bed.
“Stai studiando?” she asked. Are you studying?
I grinned. I couldn’t wait to see her reaction to the truth about her beloved olive oil. I spilled the beans.
In the time of the ancient Romans, oil was a precious commodity. It was used as a cosmetic product. In fact even earlier, the ancient Greeks used to say “wine to drink and oil to spread on your skin.” I finished my mini-lesson by telling her that the first recorded recipe for tomato sauce, from the 1830s, listed lard, NOT oil as the cooking fat of choice.
Marina smiled and continued to sip her water.
“Aren’t you shocked?!”
She shook her head. “In fact in Puglia we always show a great respect for oil. It is practically a sin to let it drip on the ground. It is considered sacred. It only makes sense, that historically, it was equated with a luxury item.”
She put her cup in the sink. “Buonanotte, Laura. Buono studio.”
“Notte,” I replied.
Ok, so maybe she wasn’t astounded by the news. But I sure as heck was.
I anxiously twirled my hair as I read through more of my notes. “Hmm, “I thought, “I should probably buy some new conditioner, my hair feels rather brittle.”
I continued to read. And then, just like that, I had an “aha!” moment.
“Why use fancy hair conditioners? Why not do as the ancient Greeks? Why not use olive oil?”
I grabbed our store bought bottle and ran to the bathroom. Leaning over the sink, I poured the oil over my head. As I combed the oil through my hair, I found myself gradually getting more and more tired. The rich, nutty scent lulled me to a sleepy state. I climbed into bed, smelling like salad and dreaming of the southern seaside and rocky cliffs covered in twist-trunked, feather-leafed olive trees.
I woke up to a shriek.
Apparently not everyone thinks of the Mediterranean when they see olive oil. I had (in my sleep, might I add) tossed and turned quite a bit. I managed to smear the oil all over my face and arms. When Marina opened the blinds to our great big window, the sun poured in and reflected off my, rather shiny, skin. My radiant complexion, however, only seemed to frighten her.
When I tried to explain, I was met with blank stares.
My roommates don’t take after their toga-wearing, olive oil bedecked ancestors. At Via Belvedere 10, olive oil is purely a culinary substance.