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29 september 2021
Millennials did not invent avocados, or the 1970s avocado-green kitchen could not have been a thing. But they certainly seem to have transformed a marginal fruit, associated with Mexican cuisine, into a staple in the wider American culinary world, hence pushing it to global prominence.
As Jeff Miller shows in his global history of avocados, it hasn't all been just a matter of taste. For most of the 20th century, American avocado growers were protected by a stringent import ban. This kept avocados something of a delicacy here, often in short and seasonal supply. In two stages in the 1990s, the entire U.S. market was opened to Mexican avocados. Suddenly the fruit was everywhere. We couldn't make it into guacamole fast enough and had to improvise by slicing it cunningly onto toast. A lifeway was born.
But avocados have had a global presence ever since transatlantic contact began. Their unique status as a fruit that is high in nutritive fats and proteins instead of sugar made avocados a basic food of the Aztecs and their Mexican and Central American predecessors. One "landrace" of avocados, says Miller, made it to the Caribbean via trade shortly before Europeans did, to form the basis of a major agricultural and culinary tradition in places like Hispaniola. Others made their way to South America.
Avocados seem to have had a powerful effect not just on Native American appetites but on their imaginations too. Miller cites this story from an anthropological classic:
Sir James Frazer, in his classic The Golden Bough, writes of a festival held by the Indians of northern Peru to make 'alligator pears' ripen and become more flavourful: 'The festival lasted five days and five nights, and was preceded by a fast of five days during which they ate neither salt nor pepper and refrained from their wives. At the festival men and boys assembled stark naked in an open space among the orchards, and ran from there to a distant hill. Any woman they overtook along the way was violated.' (22)Ya know, I suspect somebody was having Sir James Frazer on by telling him that particular story.
The avocado that conquered the world was developed in Alta California, by a home gardener named Hass. Since avocados do not grow true from seed, agricultural growers graft desirable varieties onto local rootstock; but scientists and hobbyists alike continue to plant avocado pits hoping for something valuable to turn up. When one of the trees he'd grown from seed not only refused to die but produced prolific numbers of somewhat gnarly-looking but awesomely delicious avocados, Hass knew he was on to something. Miller says that Hass earned about $5,000 from his find. The original tree that Hass planted in La Habra Heights, CA lived from 1926 till 2002. Its descendants populate every continent except Antarctica.
Avocados taste great, are easy for cooks to work with (despite the prevalence of "avocado hand," a type of injury incurred when misjudging the leatheriness of the skin when cutting them, 59). They are a true comfort food that requires almost no effort to prepare. (Miller includes some avocado recipes but none of them involve cooking, because cooking actually ruins the taste of avocados: when using them in hot dishes, you should just chop them up and throw them in at the very end, or let the eaters do so.)
And avocados are very good for you. But they consume lots of water. Miller says this is less a problem in their original habitats in Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean than in California and particularly in Chile, which now exports millions to the growing Chinese market. Avocados can be like almonds in imposing gluttonous monocultures on regions where they are not adapted. They are even overplanted in Mexico, where they have contributed to the loss of monarch-butterfly habitat (62).
Despite their ubiquity, avocados have never become really cheap, even close to their home range. They went from a pleasant orchard fruit to a worldwide luxury so fast that avocado rustling is apparently a thing in Mexico, and avocado cartels run a protection racket that growers resist by hiring avocado militias. Elsewhere, an avocado is still something of a miracle, the culmination of a long and resource-consuming logistics chain, as when English people eat avocados flown in from New Zealand.
So the pretentious associations of the millennial avocado persist. Miller does not cite one of the better (but probably apocryphal) avocado stories, one that circulated about the English Labour politician Peter Mandelson some time back. Getting in touch with his nonexistent working-class roots, Mandelson visited a chip shop in his constituency (the story goes) and was thrilled when he saw a tub of mushy peas. "Guacamole!" Mandelson exclaimed. Or didn't; as I said, the story is probably more aspirational than real. I was amused by it, though, because when I first heard it about 15 years ago, mushy peas were far more exotic to me, and mistaking anything green and puréed for guacamole would have been a pretty natural move. But such are the shifting ways of food, where prestige becomes familiarity becomes contempt in a few short decades.
Miller, Jeff. Avocado: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2020.