History Bites: Greece

History Bites: Greece
I’m only two History Bites in, but I can already see myself becoming completely enveloped by this little venture. Like I said last time, I’m no historian, and I’m definitely not a writer. But I find myself very inspired to start telling a deeper story here than I can through just food. It’s funny where inspiration can strike you. I had planned on going into a detailed history of the gyro and rotisserie meat, but I was flipping through some photos from my last trip to Greece and my mind was changed. So instead, today we’ll be taking a deeper look at the olive. 

People either love or hate olives. It took me until I was 16 and in Greece for the first time on a band trip to even be able to palette them. I’ll never forget it. We were on our way to tour Delphi and we stopped at this roadside restaurant. As I sat at the table next to a bunch of my fellow rowdy band geeks who had been unleashed like a bunch of wild animals upon the unfortunate continent of Europe, I looked out the window to see an olive grove. As the server laid the gigantic bowl of Greek salad on the table, I realized that I’d never have an opportunity like this. It was time to try the olive. I hyped myself up: “Come on Michael, you just worked in your first kitchen, your parents eat these all the time. Just do it, you might never be back here, see what all the fuss is about.”

Now don’t get me wrong, the olive was good, but I still didn’t get the love for it. That is, until my grandfather showed me how to make a proper martini. There’s nothing quite like listening to jazz, shooting pool, and having a martini in the afternoon when you’re supposed to be working on a paper about Marxism (sorry Mom, we definitely didn’t do as much schoolwork as we let on).

Olive Grove Crete
Classical Greece was a machine powered by the olive, the fruit of the olive tree. In the ancient world it was used for everything from lamp fuel to beauty products. It was a crucial part of their economy, and in fact it still is. Greece is the third largest exporter of olive oil to this day. We could spend all day talking about the methods of harvest, economics, and cooking when it comes to olives. But I’d like to do something a little different. I’d like to talk about a contest. 

For those unfamiliar with the Greek mythology and the associated pantheon of gods, you should probably start by watching Hercules (yes, the Disney movie). But the Coles Notes to the fascinating pantheon is as follows. Zeus was the head honcho, leader of the Olympians (the main gods who ruled over the ancient world), and god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order, and justice. Zeus had two brothers: Hades and Poseidon. He also had three sisters: Demeter, Hestia, and Hera (who was also his wife). 
Zeus also had this nagging habit of not being able to keep it in his pants. A significant portion of Greek mythology is centred around his inability to keep it zipped up. As a result, Zeus’s children are too numerous to include here, but the one that we need to concern ourselves with right now is Athena. 
A newly formed city was in need of a patron god, so Zeus proposed a contest to see who would get the job. It came down to Athena (goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and warfare), and Poseidon (god of seas, water, storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and horses). To win the contest and become patron god of the new city, both gods had to give the city a gift.
Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, bringing forth a saltwater spring to represent the power over the sea, and the associated gifts that would bring. Athena struck the ground with her spear, bringing forth an olive tree. The citizens recognized the true value of the olive, chose Athena, and named the city for her, making her the patron saint of Athens, and making the olive branch forever a powerful symbol in the ancient world. 

Today, Athens is the birthplace of modern democracy, a vitally important military site for ancient Greece, and one of the most important cultural and intellectual trading hubs of the ancient world—all because of the olive, which was traded far and wide The ancient Athenians even put olive branches on their coinage. Ever heard the expression “extend the olive branch of peace?” Or looked at the U.S. presidential seal?

Olive trees are incredibly resilient and can live for an insanely long time. The oldest olive tree in the world that still produces olives is on the Greek island of Crete. Elia Vouvon, or the olive tree of Vouves, is so old that it has to be dated by the archaeological record. It’s guessed to be over 4000 years old, but can’t be properly radiocarbon dated because its heartwood has rotted away. Olive trees are tricky in this way. Even after they are cut or burned down, suckers from its roots grow in its place. So they’re next to impossible to date. They’re so resilient, in fact, that the alleged descendant of that very olive tree Athena sprung forth still resides on the Acropolis to this very day. It still produces olives—trust me, I took this photo.

Olive Tree Akropolis
So next time you make a salad, a martini, or even just an antipasto plate, take a second to think about the significance of what that tiny little fruit represents.

Until next time.

Stay hungry,
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