Scripps College students in the summer of 1968 would never have guessed their protest to protect the campus’ olive orchard would lead to a culinary award more than four decades later.
This week, extra virgin olive oil made from fruit grown on the Claremont college campus beat out 207 other oils in America when it won Best Of Show for its entry in the "domestic, delicate" category.
The win was highly unusual, as Scripps was the first college ever to win an award in the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil competition, now in its 14th year.
“This is really an amazing thing for a first-time olive oil maker that’s not even a professional press to get that kind of honor -- up against some pretty well-established olive oil makers,” said Professor Nancy Neiman Auerbach, who has been teaching at the school for 20 years and helped lead the effort to make the oil.
The women’s college ranked among some of the world’s top olive oil producers including Italy, France, Greece and Spain -- and beat more than 200 other U.S. oils, almost all of them made in California.
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“In California especially, I think the olive oil world is really dynamic, and the quality has risen to the rest of the international world,” Mary Ellen Cole, competition supervisor, said. “I think all of these competitions and awareness of the differences in olive oils and how beneficial it is for health is waking a lot of people up.”
Stemming from LA's 74-year-old wine and spirits competition, the olive oil contest gradually grew into the hundreds of entries and became international. The competition for the Northern Hemisphere, held last month, brought in more than 500 different oil entries.
Scripps College, which is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places for architecture and landscape, was home to 70 olive trees that were in danger of removal decades ago.
During a time when social justice issues fueled protests on college campuses, the threatened olive grove was rescued in the 1960s by dedicated students after they questioned the removal of the trees, which were planted when the campus was built in 1926.
Lola Trafecanty, director of campus grounds, said a long battle ensued between the students and the administration until the school officials finally agreed to preserve the orchard.
In 1968, the trees -- in jeopardy of being removed for the construction of a new building -- were boxed up, removed and finally replanted after the building’s completion.
The 21st century idea to harvest the olives -- which took five years to execute -- emerged in Auerbach’s Politics and Culture of Food class. She asked the students to pitch a way to improve the campus from a sustainability standpoint, and one pupil wrote a business plan for producing olive oil from the remaining trees.
“We have orange and lemon trees, but what about these gorgeous olive trees? Why shouldn’t we be producing?" Auerbach said. "We found out they sprayed the trees so they would not fruit because they make a mess. And it made no sense that we wouldn’t be taking advantage of this incredible resource."
Auerbach thought the project would finish by the end of that semester, but she then spent the majority of the following five years convincing her the campus community that her idea would prove worthwhile.
“We had no idea what it took to make olive oil,” she said.
Making the extra virgin olive oil -- now in limited supply at $45 per 8 oz. bottle -- helped bond the surrounding Claremont community, she said. More than 85 people showed up to help harvest the olives last November.
The college used a student’s father’s olive press at an Ojai farm about 100 miles away, in an area where olives are grown commercially.
“We had a 24-hour turnaround from harvesting to delivery, because we wanted it to really be extra virgin olive oil,” Trafecanty said.
No one who was part of the project even knew the contest existed until Trafecanty stumbled across the competition online in March. The deadline was the very next day.
They entered the oil into the contest on last-minute whim before driving the bottles to the Pomona Fairplex -- just five miles away -- the next day.
And finally, this Wednesday, an unexpected tweet popped up in Scripps College’s social media feed: the announcement of its Best Of Show award for extra virgin olive oil that was harvested right on the campus just months ago.
“Weird tweet, huh?” was the email subject of a message sent among the campus community before the competition heads confirmed the win two days earlier than the scheduled announcement.
Six total Best Of Show awards were given: one domestic and one international winner in each of the three flavor categories of delicate, medium and robust.
“At $45 a bottle, it’s not something that’s available to everyone, but we wanted it to be something that would address some equity issues, and that’s why we are using proceeds to fund students doing community engagement projects,” Auerbach said. "Something that would be quite elitist is connected to something that is really very grounded."
The proceeds from oil sales go to an outreach program that helps formerly incarcerated women find jobs, student internship programs and make up the cost of this round of production, Auerbach said.
About 250 of the original 700 bottles of oil remain, and the public can buy what's left of the prized nectar at the Claremont Farmers and Artisans Market every Sunday.
“We knew this was going to be an amazing thing to do for the community one way or another,” Auerbach said. “We figured we would sell some olive oil. No one figured we would make award-winning olive oil. That was never in the cards.”