Sunday, June 03, 2007

Eating. olives.

I think it was Johnny Carson who said that "happiness is finding two olives in your martini when you're hungry." (Even if he didn't say it, it sounds like something he would have said). I have never quite gotten the hang of martinis (or pimento-stuffed green olives) but I am never happier than when I have a little bowl of olives in front of me to nibble on as I putter around the kitchen or wait for my meal to arrive while out for dinner. I have been known to eat an entire can of olives by myself and was once severely chastised for eating nearly all the olives on the table at lunch by my host, who was perhaps hoping to snag at least a few for herself. When I was quite small I would stick those jumbo black olives, with their neat little holes, on each of my fingers and eat them slowly, one by one, thinking of that scene in Beverly Cleary's The Luckiest Girl when Shelly, just arrived in California from Portland, is given a fresh olive just off the tree by Katie, and excitedly bites into it, only to find that uncured olives are bitter and inedible. (Who was the first person to think that something so bitterly unappealing could be turned into something so addictively delicious?).

As a child, lunch was often a tuna-salad sandwich made with sliced olives, cans of which were always on hand in the pantry. These were still those salty yet bland California olives from the supermarket. Later I would discover the saltier, more intense Italian olives that came scattered across rumpled sheets of foccacia at the Italian restaurant we often went to. Those same olives - Kalamata or Ni├žoise or Ligurian, dark and intense, with a faint bitterness that made them absolutely addictive - would turn up in pasta Puttanesca or swirled through those rough-hewn loaves of bread (Alan Richman wrote that he would complain to waiters at so-called Mediterranean restaurants whenever he found olives in the bread, which he found tiresome) which have become so ubiquitous throughout the past decade or so (even during the low-carb rage that swept the nation). Personally I rather liked the excitement of finding olives in my bread, but then, I love them; they add flavor and depth to whatever dish they grace, a pasta salad or a plate of Chicken Marbella, where the bright spark of olives contrasts with the soft sweetness of prunes.

In the end olives need nothing but themselves, a small handful in a bowl, next to the bread and butter, perhaps with some pickled onions and mushrooms or a plate of radishes. In Europe the guidebooks tell you to refuse this small offering (generally it comes as a small cover charge), but I could never refuse those crisp rolls or roughly-crusted bread, the sweet butter, the tiny dark olives marinated with herbs or the large, smooth green olives with their faintly briney perfume. It awakened the appetite, left you hungering for the meal to come.

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