The olive oil business

The olive oil business

When I started this blog, I told one of the earliest anecdotes I had about my family: a story about olive oil. My father’s paternal grandparents, Louis Cascio and Lucia Soldano, immigrated as teenagers with their families and settled in East Harlem, on 106th Street. After they married, Lucia and her youngest brother, Tony, sold olive oil to their neighbors, produced and exported by Louis’ brother-in-law.

In my first post, I was doubtful that this story was true, or at least that it was the whole story, and not a cover for some other, hidden events. Was it even remotely possible that the olive oil story was the extra-virgin truth, as it was told to me? If so, why did it smell like a second pressing of “The Godfather”?

 

genco tie tack
A Genco olive oil tie tack. Genco was Don Vito Corleone’s fictional import business.

 

The farmland around Corleone, in the 19th century, was used according to its distance from the city: closest to town were the household gardens, surrounded by vineyards and orchards, and then land used alternately for pasturage and to grow grain. In Corleone there was an outer ring of almost-feudal lands, called contrada (lands) or “feudi,” fief holds, based on the original Roman farms. Many are still in existence, if diminished; the locals can tell you where they once were.

The smallest of these traditional holdings in Corleone, around 1800, were five salmi, or about 8.75 hectares, in size. Many small landowners owned far less than this, with a bit of land in one contrada and another, some in vines, some in trees. Most farmers in Corleone did not own any property at all, not even their houses. 

A five salmi olive orchard could theoretically produce 39,000 kg of olives, if all of the trees were mature and healthy, and it was a favorable year for the olive harvest. That’s enough to keep 288 Italians in olive oil for a year, at today’s consumption rates. However, olives are a tough crop to rely upon, as a farmer. The trees tend to yield a good crop only in alternate years, like apple trees. They mature slowly, and do not produce saleable fruit for about ten years. But they can live for more than a thousand years.

Olive trees are extremely hardy and will usually recover from droughts and freezes. Growing anything here is tricky. Corleone is at 600 meters above sea level, where trees can sustain frost damage, and the land is dry for most of the year. The regulating agency governing olives in the Val di Mazzara, in which Corleone is located, limits olive production to no more than 8,000 kg per hectare. If the land is fully planted in the traditional way, with 28 feet between trees, that comes to around three and a third kilograms of olives per tree. This is well below the standards of ten or even fifty kilograms from a mature tree, reported by growers in other parts of the world.

biancolilla olive
The Biancolilla olive, one of three varieties grown in western Sicily

Every olive producing region in Europe has its own varieties, very few of which have been transplanted to the New World. Three types of olives are grown near Corleone, all for oil production: Biancolilla, Nocelara de Belice, and Cerasuola. Sicilian olive oils are usually a strong shade of green, with a golden undertone, good body, and a complexity of flavor. Traditionally, olives are harvested by hand or with nets. The fruit is slowly milled on a trappeto, which keeps the paste unheated, and then the olive paste is pressed in a frantoio to release the oil. Extra virgin olive oil is still produced using a very similar process.

When my twice great-aunt Biagia Cascio was born in Corleone in 1884, olive oil was likely regarded as a precious commodity. The future olive oil exporter was born at number 3, via Banditore, in the northern part of Corleone, the second child of Giuseppe Cascio and Angela Grizzaffi. They lived in the “Upper Area” of Corleone, above via Roma, in what is called the Borgo in old records: the suburbs. North of the suburbs is a great open area. To the east of this address is a via Trappeto. There must have been at least two olive mills in town, possibly at different times. There is another trappeto that appears in Church censuses of the older, southern part of the city, early in the century.

49.95.870(3)
Illustration of 17th century olive oil production. In the foreground on the left you can see the upright wheel in the olive mill, the trappeto, and in the midground on the right, three men turn the screw of a frantoio, a press.

Giuseppe Cascio was a farmer who suffered poor health, and died in 1899, when Biagia was fourteen. Her mother, older sister, and three of her younger siblings immigrated two years later, leaving her and her two youngest siblings in Corleone. I don’t know where they all lived, but it is likely they stayed with Angela’s brother, Leoluca. By this time, Leoluca and Angela’s parents had died, and Leoluca most likely inherited property from their father.

Angela, a young widow, and her older children joined her sister’s family in East Harlem. Two years later, her brother, Leoluca, brought Angela’s two youngest children with him to New York. Only Biagia did not immigrate. She married a man with the same name as her father—Giuseppe Cascio, her first cousin—in 1902.

Giuseppe was from a Mafia family. His godfather is also his namesake and maternal grandfather, Giuseppe Morello. His older cousin was the infamous gangster of the same name, named after the same grandfather. Giuseppe’s sister, Giovanna, married Pietro Majuri in 1897. Pietro was active in the Mafia in Corleone around 1900, under Giuseppe Battaglia. Two of their sons were active in 1962, under Luciano Leggio.

Biagia’s brother Louis and his wife, Lucia, my great-grandparents, married in New York in 1918. Immigrants made more money in New York than they did back in Sicily, and wanted the luxury goods they could now afford. Census records tell us that Louis worked in a laundry in 1920 and 1930. Even humble peasants from Corleone would, of course, know quality when it came to olive oil, and I expect many preferred the distinctive flavor of oil produced in their hometown, where they knew its provenance and production method, and it tasted like home. 

Long before the Mediterranean diet swept the United States, Ciro Terranova became the Artichoke King with a monopoly on small, “baby” artichokes, a Sicilian delicacy unheard of outside immigrant communities. Joe Profaci built his legitimate business empire on olive oil, beginning in 1920, around the same time my family was operating their own, far more modest import business out of their New York apartment. This niche product would go mainstream when Joe’s son, Joseph Profaci, Jr. and his Italian business partner, Enrico Colavita, founded an olive oil import business in 1978. American cuisine—and virgin olive oil—would never be the same.

 

Feature image credit: Herstellungsprozess von Olivenöl um 1600. After Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus (Netherlandish, Bruges 1523–1605 Florence),Jan Collaert I (Netherlandish, Antwerp ca. 1530–1581 Antwerp) – http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/427835

 

The godfathers of the American South

The godfathers of the American South

 

In Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather,” Vito Corleone is called by the name of his hometown because he was fleeing the mafia. But why was he called “don”?

In the US, we don’t have a term similar to this Sicilian honorific. The Southern custom of calling elders “Mister” or “Miss,” along with their given name, like “Mister Vincent,” comes close. “Don”  began being used by Sicilian nobility during its centuries under Spanish rule. In rural settings, the titles were applied more loosely, not only to the marquis, the barons, and their families (the feminine form is “donna”), but also to priests, and to other respected men in the town. In Church records of marriages, baptisms, and deaths, the elite guildsmen are recorded with the title of “maestro,” and nobles, priests, and a very few others are called “don.” The vast majority of people are peasants, and are given no title at all.

Children in Sicily call their godparents padrino and madrina (or cumpari and cummari), or they might call them “uncle” and “aunt” (zio, zia) or “grandpa” and “grandma” (nonno, nonna) but not “don” and “donna.” These honorifics are communal, not familial. Sicilian culture associates masculinity with self-sufficiency. In an agricultural setting, with little infrastructure or police presence, decisive—even violent—action can be necessary to survive. Men who command the resources to solve problems not only for themselves, but for others, prosper and earn the respect of their neighbors.

As a rule, the owners of large tracts of farmland in Corleone in the 19th century employed farm managers, agricoltore or gabelloti, to run their estates, and rural guards (guardia campestre) to protect them. Meanwhile, the landowners lived in Palermo, an arrangement that sheltered the landowner’s property, both within Palermo and outside of the city, from taxation. Because there were so few police working on the island, the guardia were a necessity in rural areas: so much so, that the state paid guards’ salaries (to protect land on which the state did not earn tax, a corporate loophole familiar to anyone who reads the US news). The nobles’ absence from small town life made the next rung down, the gabelloti and the guardia, the public face of authority to the peasantry. “Becoming a field guard was a familiar way of acquiring local power and influence,” writes Denis Mack Smith in his “History of Sicily.” They had the power to solve their neighbor’s problems, and some were so widely called “don,”the title appears in the Church records of their children’s baptisms and marriages.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a system of patronage helped many new immigrants from Sicily find work and housing in America. The farm managers to whom peasant farmers went, hats in hands, to beg for work on the estates of Corleone, had money to loan.

With the advent of steamship travel, farmers who could no longer make a living in Sicily, could do so in America. Ships from Naples stopped in Palermo before crossing the Atlantic. One’s patron could secure passage from Palermo to New York, and from there, to a high-paying job in the American South. The Americans who had previously performed agricultural labor in the South were being lured north to cities, to work in new industries. Their vacancies were filled, in some degree, by immigrants from Sicily, through the connections of their patrons, their patrini. Because whoever sent them to Ramos, or to Bryan, knew the name of the don of that place, who would help their countryman.

Not all of the farmers in Corleone who wanted to go to America, were able. People who could afford passage were still turned away at the port in Palermo, because they had physical handicaps, or not enough money to reach their final destination. One of my twice-great grandfathers is listed on a 1906 ship manifest, and then crossed out, indicating he attempted to immigrate but was not allowed to sail. His wife and some of his children had already immigrated, and he was attempting to join them. Family legend says that he was blind. After he died, his two remaining children at home, both teenagers, joined the rest of the family in New York. One of them was my great-grandmother, Lucia Soldano.

Besides the cost of a steamship ticket and the physical health necessary to travel and work, immigration required other resources. For an illiterate Sicilian who spoke no English to consider immigrating, he would need clothes, including shoes, suitable for travel, and enough advance money and food to make the journey. To be allowed to sail, he must provide the name and address of a contact person in America. Once he arrived, he needed work and housing. Besides these immediate concerns, Sicilians abroad depended on their local patrons for insurance against unemployment, disease, and death. The men called “don” solved such problems: for a fee. Like “Don Vito” Corleone, they helped their friends, who in turn would help their patron.

Many families from Corleone went to Ramos, Louisiana, west of New Orleans, and to Bryan, Texas, 100 miles inland from Houston, both places where large numbers of Sicilian immigrants settled. On one ship manifest, a bride travels with her brother-in-law to meet her husband in Ramos, and their neighbors from Corleone, the Grizzaffis, heading to Bryan to work. The bridegroom shares a name with “Mr. Vincent” Collura, another immigrant from Corleone, of unknown relation, who returns to Corleone after WWII.

The Morello-Terranova family spent time in each of these communities in the 1890s, planting sugarcane in the former, picking cotton and contracting malaria in the latter, before returning to New York. In the City, they delivered ice (an age-old mafia activity), ran saloons and coal cellars, and printed counterfeit money. That their story would be exceptional is evident from the passenger manifest: among mainly illiterate passengers, the men in Giuseppe Morello’s family could read and write. Despite Giuseppe’s birth defect, which left him with only one finger visible on his right hand, he was not turned away at the port. And while their neighbors had one or two bags each, the Terranova family brought more than a dozen pieces of luggage.

For the poorest of the poor, escape was impossible. For those with the ability to pay, however, the choice to escape the cycle of poverty was an easy one to make. Help from one’s “godfather” was an offer no one could afford to refuse.

 

Image: “Decatur Street Italians, 1938” Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons