From the time of Homer to the Bible now Rachael Ray? I’ll bet you CAN guess!

You can ask my children about the time they visited Mission San Juan Capistrano with their grandmother, Marian, an avid history enthusiast, who charmed a small crowd with her encyclopedic knowledge of the California Mission period (1769-1833) acting as an impromptu museum docent.  They recall their grandmother loved the attention and they were quite embarrassed.

Parents and children are encouraged to visit as many as possible in the chain of 21 Spanish Missions scattered along California’s El Camino Real or “The Royal Highway” as a part of the California State curriculum and 4th grade Missions Project. The curriculum veers sharply away from the treatment and servitude of the Native American population and focuses instead upon Mission industry and architecture.

I happen to live in a “city with a mission.” Mission San Gabriel Arcangel was the fourth established Mission, founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra. You’d think that would be enough, but I enjoy soaking up a little California history whenever I can work it in, so that’s what we did last Friday on our way to join the rest of the family in the Bay Area.

We needed a good leg stretch and veered the car off the highway and right into the parking area of Mission San Miguel, 16th in the chain of 21 in the town of San Miguel, just a bit north of Paso Robles.  It’s a smaller mission, and we spent most of our time walking in the courtyard inspecting the outdoor adobe oven, looms and spinners, and the crude, yet functional olive presses drew my attention to the surrounding landscape.  I didn’t see many olive trees, yet had to imagine that at one time the trees would have been plentiful, as had the orange groves once been in abundance near the San Gabriel Mission.

This week I looked up a grass roots organization I remembered from a local public radio interview some time ago. The Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration and Education Project / MOPREP aims to strengthen and preserve the cultural link to the California Mission Olive, encouraging all the missions to plant and harvest olives creating an historical link while also educating the public about the olive in daily mission life.

Apparently olive oil was a crucial element in cooking, lighting, soap, and even in spinning, with the olive oil used to prepare the wool.  Olive oil sediment greased cartwheels and machinery, and the high amounts of Vitamin A, E and C provided healing qualities for burns, cuts and soothing skin irritation, and don’t forget its prominence in sacramental use.  Today California produces up to 80% of the ripe olives consumed in the United States, and approximately 400,000 gallons of olive oil annually.

Almost everyone recognizes the health benefits of olive oil in the diet with its high content of antioxidative substances , but you may not know that studies also show that newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil contains oleocanthal—which acts as a natural anti-inflammatory compound very similar to Ibuprofen.  So buy the good stuff—what Rachael Ray calls E-V-O-O.  High quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from the first press.  It’s also extracted without using heat or chemicals, so the taste is closer to its natural state.  Keep it away from light and heat and it will retain its wonderful flavor.

We plan to visit the 53rd Pasadena Greekfest this weekend, and while I encourage the virtues of a diet rich in olives and olive oil, hallmarks of Greek cuisine, I am really trying to find a way to justify the “Best New Item 2011”—Feta Fries! I may never tell what happens next!

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