I really do believe that Olive Oil is the glue that holds my food together
August 23, 2018 • By Seamus Mullen
I was barely 17 years old, from a small town in Vermont and I was on a plane on my way to Spain to spend my senior year in high school living with a host family, learning to speak Spanish. I really had no idea how impactful that trip would become, but the moment I got to Burgos, in North-central Spain, I knew it was going change me.
By 17 I was already very interested in food and cooking and when I met my host family and the first thing they did was take me to a bar for a glass of local wine and tapas, I had a feeling that this was going to an amazing experience. Both of my host parents were food-obsessed (as is most of Spain!) and they were eager to teach the Yankee all about their local foods. I took to it so naturally, helping my host mom in the morning with prep for lunch, then coming home from school in the early afternoon to help her finish the final cooking for lunch. On the weekends we would go to the small village where they were from and pick grapes, make wine, grill lamb. It was a relationship with ingredients and food that echoed my upbringing on the farm, but was hundreds and hundreds of years old.
I remember clearly the first time she taught me to make tortilla espanola and she told me that it should only have 5 ingredients: eggs, potatoes, onions, salt and olive oil. I had never really thought of olive oil as an ingredient, but that’s a lesson that has stuck with me for my entire career. It is so much more than a cooking fat- it’s a finishing sauce, a unifying thread that pulls dishes together and a stand -alone ingredient that can take a mundane dish and elevate it to the extraordinary.
Over the past 27 years I’ve returned to Spain many, many times, as both a student, a cook and a tourist. With each trip, my love for the foods and traditions of the country has deepened and I’ve had the good fortune to know olive oil up close, working the harvest and pressing the fruit into the liquid gold that has no comparison. Along the way olive oil has come to mean something else to me, more than just a staple ingredient in my kitchen, but actually a fundamental part of my health journey. So much so that I even wrote an entire chapter in my first book “Hero Food” about olive oil. As my professional career grew, my health declined. I spent much of my twenties and nearly all of my thirties suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis, a chronic, inflammatory auto-immune disease. For the majority of those years, I followed conventional treatment and when it became clear that it wasn’t getting me any healthier, I started seeking out alternative approaches to treatment. Over the course of the next few years, through dietary and lifestyle choices I was able to reverse the disease and reclaim my health.
The major changes in my diet that were most important involved removing inflammatory foods that triggered and worsened my flare-ups and eating more and more naturally anti-inflammatory foods like extra virgin olive oil. Having a broad approach to healing I think, is the most important thing anyone who is struggling with illness can do. Rest, de-stressing, recovering, eating well, moving well, these are all equally important. There has been a lot of research on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, but I think it’s more than just the diet, it’s the overall approach to life that involves community, activity, rest, food and low levels of stress. Olive oil is a foundational part of that lifestyle and if we can tap into it, it becomes one more delicious tool in our toolbox to help us combat illness. We frequently hear it referred to as a “superfood” because of it’s myriad health benefits- and I could go on and on about how it can help the body heal- I think it’s most important just to think of it as a natural, fundamental part of having a positive relationship with food. Olive oils from Spain is without a doubt a great way of improving cholesterol, but it’s also just incredibly delicious and has countless applications!
As I think about my approach to food, I really do believe that Olive Oil is the glue that holds my food together, without it I would probably have to hang up my towel and quit! Not only does it weave through all my cooking, but it has helped me take back my health and reclaim my life.