August 1, 2021

Ancel Keys, “Mister olive oil”

By Pierre Hemme

Posted today at 5:00 a.m.

In 1963, Ancel Keys bought with his wife, Margaret, a large piece of land in the coastal village of Pioppi, in Campania, in southern Italy. For this modest hamlet which brings together a hundred or so fishing families, it is already an event. But the American scientist does not stop there. He had a gigantic family farm built there, overlooking the Mediterranean, and populated his garden with fruit trees and olive trees.

Soon, around his home, other scientists set up their residences, forming a vast community that Ancel Keys baptizes “Minnelea”, a contraction of “Minnesota” and “Elea”, one of the places visited by Ulysses.

Ancel Keys, at the University of Arizona, circa 1931.

“Professor Kissi” will live for thirty-five years in this Mediterranean Eden. It is there, in this open-air “lab” overlooking the sea, that he seeks to answer the question that torments him: how does food influence health? In the small village as in much of the Mediterranean rim, people die of cardiovascular diseases much less than in the United States. He himself will have a “teacher” in this quest. Delia Morinelli, his cook, who knows by heart the traditional recipes of this part of Italy: pasta with olives and tuna, lasagna, eggplant with parmesan, fried anchovies. So many dishes that have in common… olive oil.

In fact, the researcher will end up consuming a teaspoonful per day of the golden liquid (and two dried figs before going to bed). As surprising as it may seem, it is he, an American, who will develop the modern concept of “Mediterranean diet”, of which olive oil is one of the pillars.

A church dedicated to Santa Maria de li Pluppi was built in 994 at the mouth of the Mortelle stream, around which a fishing village developed.  Completely destroyed during the war (1282-1302), it was later rebuilt on the current site of the village of Pioppi.

Ancel Keys was born January 2, 1904 in Colorado. And her life is hectic enough to fuel several Hollywood biopics. Young Ancel, described as “gifted” by school psychologists, leaves high school to do odd jobs: clerk in a grocery store (a job he describes as “Intolerably boring”), an artificer in Colorado mines or logging camps, he also works to recover bat guano (excrement used as fertilizer) in caves in Arizona. He even turbines as far as China in the engine room of a liner, on board which he says he learned Chinese in a few months.

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