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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 21, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Olive Oil

I didn't grow up in an olive-oil household.

We've tracked all our ancestors back to the boats they stepped off of, and they all came from England, Scotland, and Ireland -- lands where "spicy" means you salt the lard before you fry it.

It wasn't till I was in my thirties, eating lunch with my publisher at a favorite Italian restaurant of his in New York, that I first heard of the concept of dipping bread in olive oil instead of spreading it with butter.

He assured me that I'd like it, and since I knew he had exceptional taste (he published my books, didn't he?), I could only believe him.

I loved it. And from that day on I've been dipping my bread.

When I could find decent olive oil, that is.

Olive oils are not created equal. For one thing, some species of olives are more flavorful than others. And some of the flavors are better than others.

And then there's the pressing process. The oil that emerges from the first cold pressing has far more flavor than the stuff that oozes out after heat processing.

A good Italian cook wouldn't be caught dead serving the kind of olive oil Americans routinely get off the grocery store shelves. That stuff is used for lubricant, or maybe for sauteing, where the flavor of the oil really isn't important.

When I eat at Rossini's in New York, one reason their bruschetta is perfect is because the fresh tomatoes are dressed with a robust, piquant olive oil.

When an Italian restaurant serves you a caprese, you can tell if they're proud of their olive oil -- they don't feel the need to sharpen it with vinegar.

One world-class restaurant -- Campanile on La Brea in LA -- is so proud of their olive oils that they offer you a seasonally changing menu, with oils from Spain, Italy, and France, and occasionally selections from other places -- or even oils from pumpkin seeds or even more exotic plants. You pay a few bucks for each two-ounce portion, but it's worth it.

Lucques Restaurant on Melrose in West Hollywood is named after the most delicious eating olive in the world, the fragile lucques olive, which I simply can't stop eating -- the only place in America I've ever found this olive, though it's sold on the streets of Paris.

But what can one do for olive oil in Greensboro? In most area restaurants, the waiters look at you like you're insane when you ask for olive oil for dipping your bread. When you at last convince them that you mean it, they bring you a sad little oil, so clear and flavorless you feel like you should be squirting it into a roller skate wheel or a squeaking hinge, not eating it.

A couple of restaurants have tried to compensate for relatively weak oils by adding other things. Revival Grill, for instance, gives you parmesan cheese and dried chopped peppers to add to the oil, which gives a fair result. The new Italian restaurant on Lawndale near Target (which I haven't visited yet) has quite a good peppery dipping oil, which was brought to me by a good friend who knows about my passion for oils. Park Place's tomato salad uses an excellent vinegar with its unremarkable olive oil, for a salad as close to a good caprese as you can get in Greensboro outside our kitchen.

Green Valley Grill used to bring out quite an adequate olive oil with its bread, and you can still get it if you ask.

But the best olive oils in town are only available at Fresh Market, as far as I've seen.

My favorite is Masserie di Sant'eramo. There are two varieties, one with a light label, the other with a darker green label. Both are extra virgin (all olive oils sold in America are extra virgin, a concept that boggles the mind), and both are from the first cold pressing. The mild one is pretty good, but the one that announces itself as having "robust flavor" is the only truly gorgeous olive oil I've found in Greensboro.

In addition, there's a combination olive oil worth trying. Consorzio makes a basil-flavored olive oil that substitutes fairly well when you can't get fresh basil for a caprese salad.

I sought out olive oil for flavor alone, but it turns out that olive oil is also very healthy -- rich in "safe" fats and low in the dangerous ones. It's always a happy coincidence when something I'm going to eat anyway turns out to be good for me.


While they're still in the theaters, here are three movies I must recommend.

-- I've already mentioned "Amelie," a French film with subtitles that is nevertheless one of the most charming, funny, touching movies of the year. Normally I detest movies where the director is constantly forcing you to notice how the film is constructed, but in this case the director seems merely to be letting us in on the joke. If you've never enjoyed a subtitled film, this a good one to start with.

-- "Life as a House" is not for everyone. It is, in a way, the other side of the coin from the detestable "American Beauty." Both show a nightmare vision of middle class life that bears no relation to anything I've actually seen (but resembles Hollywood society very closely -- everyone sleeping with everyone, taking drugs, and showing contempt for decency and law).

"Life as a House," however, also shows us the goodness of these people, as they try to get control of their lives and escape from the nightmare of a society gone mad. It is about a family saving itself by building a house. I wept at the ending. I love this movie.

Kevin Kline's performance is wonderful. In a rational universe, this would be his Oscar year. Oscar or not, however, if you can bear the painful, disturbing, or sexual scenes that thoroughly earn an R rating, this is a movie not to miss.

-- "A Beautiful Mind" filled me with dread. Another "mental illness" movie. Historically, Hollywood has had only two approaches to the topic:

There's the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" approach, in which the crazy people are all free spirits that we should love, not lock up. One thinks also of "Rain Man."

Then there's the psychologist-as-savior movie. One thinks, nauseatedly, of Streisand's "Prince of Tides" or the laughable climax of "Good Will Hunting" (which was stolen from the much better movie but equally silly science of"Ordinary People").

Part of the reason most Hollywood "mental illness" movies handle the science so badly is because psychology didn't even become a science until the last twenty years or so. Before that it was merely a series of sects in a secular religion, collecting data and then force-fitting it into theories that Freud, Jung, and others had simply made up.

And part of the reason was Hollywood itself. Actors wanted a chance to chew the scenery ("Girl, Interrupted") and studios wanted movies with happy endings.

Guess what? "A Beautiful Mind" is not just accurate, it's powerful in the way the filmmakers have evoked the experience of paranoid hallucinatory schizophrenia. And Russell Crowe does not chew the scenery. Rather he creates a portrait of a real man whose life earns the title of the film.

He'll win the best actor Oscar two years in a row -- and, unlike Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman," he'll actually deserve the Oscar for portraying a mentally ill man, because this is no one-trick performance.

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