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Question: The question I pose is simple, but I have yet to find an answer. Why don’t black olives come in a jar? —Katie J
Answer: Oh, Katie J, Katie J—hey, are you related to the late, great Jam Master? You have the same last name.
But to your question: black and green olives, and the age-old joke about why the former come in cans and the latter in jars.
First, a long digression. You should know there is a deeply divisive olive issue afoot. In California, you can get any pizza anywhere with green olives. It’s basically mandatory there. But in New York, green olives are impossible to find, and black olives abound. Let me prove it to you, via the method of real journalistic reporting.
First I called the delightful, cornmeal-abundant pie-house Two Boots on Avenue A.
Me: Do you have green olives?
Two Boots: No, only black olives.
Two Boots: We don’t carry green olives. I’m sorry.
Me: Does anyone else, you think?
Two Boots: No, no, not at Two Boots.
Misdirection! Evasion! Bizarre! I called another Two Boots, the one over on 11th Street, to trap them up in their lies.
Me: Hi, do you have green olives for your pizza?
Two Boots: Black olives, sir. [A pause. He hangs up.]
Hello, I’d like a large Hiding Something with extra cheese?
Then I called Muzzarella Pizza—totally delicious, tucked just south of Stuyvesant Town on Avenue A:
Me: Hi, do you have green olives for pizza, or just black?
Me: And never green?
Me: Why is that?
Muzzarella: We use the black. I have the green, but just for the store. We only use the black just for delivery.
EXCUSE ME? This pizza parlor is hoarding green olives for secret in-house pizza rituals!
For authenticity’s sake, I then called the allegedly original Ray’s at 27 Prince Street:
Me: Hi. Do you have green olives for pizza?
Me: Huh. Why not?
Ray’s: Only the black.
Me: Really. And just why is that?
Ray’s: [bored] Yeah, I have no idea.
He sounded really hot though. Like, sweaty-pizza-guy, big-schnoz, do-me-right hot.
Ovo, in the little Italian strip clustered around Second Avenue and Fourth Street, has delivered unto me more late-night pizzas than I dare confess. Seriously, we’re talking like 10 miles of pizza and the difference between a waist size of 32 and a 34. They make a delicious “farmer style” pizza—apparently farmers like to do it with kalamata olives and pepperoni.
Me: Hi, do you have green olives for your pizza, or just kalamata?
Ovo: Kalamata, the best kalamata in town!
Me: Why no green olives?
Ovo: Because I don’t like them!
Me: Ha! Why not?
Ovo: I use the best kalamata olives, seriously, and a lot of people ask for it.
Me: In California all the pizza has green olives.
Ovo: Well, you know… I dunno what to tell you. You like green olives, I tell you, eh. So, what kind of pizza do you want now?
Me: No, I’m good. I’ll, uh, order later.
Clearly, it was time to call in the professionals. First, I wrote to Steven Shaw, food and restaurant critic, and the king of eGullet.
I asked Mr. Shaw for insight into this travesty. And—remembering our task for poor Katie—I asked him to answer the age-old riddle: Why do black olives come in cans and green olives come in jars?
“The questions are actually related,” Mr. Shaw wrote us. “Olives don’t come to us in edible form straight from the tree. They have to be processed. Black and green olives (which can be the same olives—the color is how they end up, not necessarily how they grow) are processed differently. Green olives are for the most part intended to be eaten raw. They are cured not cooked. This is, I believe, why they don’t typically appear on pizzas. Canned black olives are literally cooked, like most anything else in a can. If you canned green olives, it would cook them, and that’s not what you want for a cured olive meant to be eaten raw. If you tried to cook black olives in jars (the processing is done in the actual vessel in which the olives are sold), you’d break a lot of jars.”
Hmm! “In addition,” added Mr. Shaw, “Green olives are prettier—especially when stuffed with something—which makes them ideal for placing in jars.”
Okay, I buy it. Still, if green olives are cured but un-cooked, and therefore inappropriate for pizza, why then do Californians pile them on like so many pairs of bad sunglasses or bad metaphors?
We turned next to Mr. Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic of The New York Times. “What is wrong,” we asked, “with New York City that its pizzerias refuse to offer their pie-hungry customers the option of green olives as a topping?” And, “Why do black olives come in cans and green olives come in jars?”
Mr. Bruni didn’t venture an opinion on the New York pizza-based availability of the salty droppings of the Family Oleaceae—although he admitted to sometimes finding olives on pizza a bit of a flavor “bully.” But regarding the cans/jars question, he did have this to say:
“I had never taken note of it before,” he wrote. “Is it because green olives are prettier than black, and so they get to be seen?” Clearly, Mr. Shaw and Mr. Bruni are in cahoots here. “And if it’s true that we generally find them prettier,” added Mr. Bruni, “are we committing olive looks-ism? Olive racism?”
This is an excellent point. Perhaps I must reconcile myself to being fortunate to have these bullying olives on my pizza at all, no matter what their color. Can’t olives just get along?
But I have another theory in answer to your question, Katie J. Why do black olives come in tin cans and green olives come in glass jars? Because you’re poor, Katie. Any edible and decent olive, no matter what its color, most certainly does not come in a tin can.