So that was olives-as-food. When I was growing up there were also olives-as-chore. We had an olive tree in the front yard of the house that would stain our driveway purple and pelt the cars. Sweeping them. Spraying them. Washing them off cars. I remember an uncle of mine coming over one season with a big white bucket to liberate us from the tyranny of the horrid olives. I thought he was nuts. He seemed to genuinely *like* them, though I never did hear what he actually did with them. He didn’t come back the following season so I figured he had finally learned the universal truth I believed to be true: olives = bitter, useless, and annoying.
Then people started importing. Or better still, people started brining their own, which I think is what the uncle did with his haul that year. Then came the olive bar, that fascinating piece of culinary marketing, because brining is a bit of a pain if you didn’t grow up with the technique but you still want some good olive action. Now we have a rainbow assortment of pinks, greens, browns, and purples. You can have them stuffed with everything from cheese to garlic or you can have them plain and whole as part of a first course at dinner. One of my favorite olive discoveries during my ‘reformation’ was a giant purple olive that had been soaked in wine. Decadence and delight! Safe to say, I am now a proper olive convert and I usually offer them at friendly gatherings in pretty bowls for casual munching…if they survive my snacking beforehand.
I had flashes of that childhood tree yesterday -- the almost peppery citrusy smells of ripe olives bursting underfoot and the oily dots they left behind. The difference though lay in the buzz of community around this task. Students, teachers, local neighborhood residents (yours truly included), and of course, a smattering of press. Since when did CalTech become a culinary school? When I spoke to Cook and Nifty Wench about it, she confirmed that this was the first known olive harvest in the campus’ long history. They have over 100 olive trees on campus and they only started to realize their foodie potential a year ago when two undergrads used the biology lab’s centrifuge to purify a batch of dorm room pressed oil.
The discovery set the campus in motion. Yesterday, we harvested over a ton of olives – about twice what they were anticipating. Ricky and Dvin, the two students mentioned above, took their own supply for mashing and pressing on their own equipment on the Olive Walk. The process ended up being a fascinating look into the world of olive oil, as well as chance to get a bit muddy with olive mash. Those who walked the grounds with purple stained hands wore them as honor badges.
Lunch was a sampling of campus created foods and other olive-related things – tapenade, infused oils, fruits, marmalade, and escargot. That last one was the most fascinating as it was another student-inspired campus food item, courtesy of the CalTech Meat Club. Yup. It’s what you think.
I worked and toiled and brought the fruits of my labor for my community. Now, I shall party like it’s 1999.
I took over 200 pictures yesterday. And I could have taken more, except I was just so dang burnt out by the time they rolled out our dinner (which was incredible). You can find an abridged set of shots here. I tried to pick those that told the story best.
Posting everything that was worth talking about would have taken me a few days to write about and probably several posts. I met some really great people, including Cook and Nifty Wench (Sarah) and her family, Anais and Jordanne of the local urban homestead, Path to Freedom, KPCC reporter Doualy Xaykaothao (her report on the festival will be on KPCC today on their weekend show, Off Ramp)(EDIT: I downloaded it Sunday morning but heard not a dang thing about the olive harvest so maybe it was an interstitial report.) , and at least a hundred other volunteers who were willing to indulge a local food blogger with her constant picture taking and questions.
Now I’m sore and tired and looking to get in a few naps. But what a great day. What a great day.
EDIT: a few news pieces to run through for info:
San Gabriel Vally Tribune