Adulterated Oil, Adulterated Nation: Anxiety and the Production of Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Thursday, July 9, 2015
S14 (13 rue de l'Université)
Daniel Shattuck , Anthropology, University of New Mexico
Recently, exposés concerning the adulteration of Italian olive oil have sparked debate about the authenticity of that product on the global market. These reports describe the importation of cheap non-Italian oils; the addition of seed or vegetable oils to augment supplies; the use of chlorophyll, flavors, and perfumes; and the chemical or heated extraction of oil. As the exposés themselves illustrate, the adulteration of olive oil is an economic issue tied to the paradox of desire for both quality product and low cost. However, the issue runs even deeper when considering food as a site for interrogating our relationships to the borders between self and the world, between sovereign states, and the borders between human and non-human. Food, especially in Italy, has become a way of negotiating the relationship between consolidating national identity and reconciling the desire for both extreme regionalism and European cosmopolitanism. Products with regional, national, and prestige claims, like D.O.P. or I.G.P extra virgin olive oil, play a subtle yet meaningful role. Drawing on recent ethnographic research, this paper examines the multiple and overlapping linkages of the production of olive oil and the Italian nation through the prevalent metaphors of health, genealogy, and geography. I argue that the anxiety expressed in the production of olive oil is not only an economic concern but that it is intimately connected to broader anxieties of the Italian nation concerning its place within Europe, its relationship to the Mediterranean, its own particular brand nationalism, and continued concerns over immigration.