Olive harvest @ Caltech

6 Nov

It’s always interesting to see how other campuses are working with the urban nature on their grounds. On Friday, I stopped by a festival at Caltech, in Pasadena. The occasion was a harvest on their famed Olive Walk, which sports many of the 130 olive trees on campus. The day featured the last of the harvest, which had begun a few days earlier, when the Grounds crew picked some of the olives from the higher tree branches. This is what olive-picking looks like:

Volunteers pick olives, which then fall to the ground onto tarps.

The olives are then collected and put into large bins. This is what the take looked like, toward the end of the harvest.

Bins of green and black olives waiting to be taken for pressing.

According to organizers, the last festival was in 2008, when volunteers–mostly students–harvested 2500 pounds of olives, and the Grounds crew harvested another 3500 pounds. This yielded about 127 gallons of olive oil. Some cooking demos and a lunch accompanied the olive-picking. Here, one volunteer presides over pots of herb-infused olive oil.

Mythili Iyer (class of 2012) serves up samples after a cooking demo.

And another stirs pots of herby, buttery escargots to be eaten on french bread.

Volunteer Jim Workman dishes out escargots.

The event is the brainchild of Tom Mannion, Assistant VP of Student Affairs and Campus Life at Caltech. Tom also teaches a for-credit course called “Cooking Basics,” which he mentioned is the most popular course at Caltech. It is also worth noting that Caltech is the intellectual home of Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, the go-to book for understanding the scientific mysteries of the kitchen, including the health benefits of fermented milks, the effects of rigor mortis over time on shellfish, and  breakdowns of species of rice and their growing environments.

There are a few differences from our setup–this is a one-day event, with a lot of help from college staff and workers, whereas you have been tending the garden from scratch all on your own. Their connection to the larger communities and spaces around them, though, is something we might use for inspiration. The project started through student initiatives and experimenting with your old friend vernacular creativity:

In 2005, Kristen Kozak (’09) tried to preserve some olives by dry curing them, that is, using salt to remove the bitter taste. Unfortunately, the olives were infested by flies. The experiment was repeated with better olives in 2006 by Kristen and four other students  (Alex Roper, Robbie Xiao, Dan Rowlands, and Cathy Douglass, all also Class of ’09) and met with mixed results. What worked very well, however, was pressing them for oil. These students picked both green and black olives and pressed them with cheesecloth to separate the pulp from the oil and juice, and put the liquids in a jar to separate. The oil rose to the top and was then skimmed off. The students ate the oil plain and on bread. Also in  2006, undergraduates Dvin Adalian and Ricky Jones did their own olive oil experiment. Using a remedial set of tools and a set of instructions they devised themselves, they managed to purify 550 mL of oil. (For a more detailed account  of the process, click here.)  They distributed the oil throughout their residence (Ruddock House) and the biology division, to Caltech president and first lady Jean-Lou Chameau and Carol Carmichael, and to their friends and families. The verdict? “It was delicious.”

Are there similar resources waiting to be cultivated at USC? Keep an eye out on the grounds as you walk around. It took a couple years of prepping the olives to get rid of flies and make them consumable, but with a little planning, experimentation and collaboration, they did it!

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