A cultural history of the avocado
A toast to the berry - yes, it's a berry - on National Avocado Day
Apparently, there’s a spider within three feet of us at all times, and we’re never further than six feet from a rat. These days, one thing certainly seems true: we’re never more than two scrolls away from an avocado.
On Instagram, a ‘basic’ – in every sense of the word – search for the hashtag #avocado currently returns over 8.3 million posts. And those aren’t all brunch photos supplied by your ‘foodie’ friend anymore, either.
There are lattes served within avocado husks; knitted avocado toys; avocado-themed Easter Eggs; avocados on greetings cards; and, most recently, the sight of somehow not-single men in America proposing using avocados as ring-bearers.
For an ugly, tasteless berry - yes, berry - the humble avocado truly holds people all over the world under its spell.
In America, for instance, the annual avocado consumption of the average person has increased from 0.5kg in 1989 to well over 3kg in 2016. In the UK, avocados had the third largest sales growth of any grocery item last year, just behind a brand of beer and an energy drink.
Avocado consumption is so rife that, in 2016, Australian millennials were told they’d stand more chance of being able to afford property if they gave up buying so many.
How did it get this far? Well, seeing as July 31 marks National Avocado Day, let’s chart the history of this supple little social climber.
15,000 BC: Are they immortal?
We begin with some surprising news: avocados shouldn't actually be here at all.
As with many plants, the avocado’s survival ought to rely on animals eating their fruit whole, walking off in another direction, then defecating the seed in a new spot.
Except… have you seen the size of an avocado seed? There were once huge animals like mammoths and giant ground sloths that would chomp them down at will, but all those creatures went extinct around 13,000 years ago, leaving nothing large enough to do the same job today.
It’s what’s known as an ‘evolutionary anachronism’. In short: nobody is quite sure how avocados managed to stay extant until humans started planting them.
Superfood? Too right.
10,000BC: The first hipsters
This will come as a devastating blow to anybody who believes they personally discovered avocados in Whole Foods in 2011, but archaeologists have found evidence of them being eaten by humans in Central America as early as around 10,000 BC.
Avocados are still predominantly grown in Mexico, but can be found much further south, as well as in the Caribbean, California, and now Israel and southern Europe.
Oh, and the name? It derives from ‘āhuacatl’, a word in the Nahuatl language (spoken by the indigenous Nahua people of Mexico and El Salvador), which also meant ‘testicle’. Lovely.
1696: An overseas signing
A Spanish conquistador, Fernández de Oviedo, is said to have been one of the first Europeans to try an avocado, in the early 16th century. “In the centre of the fruit is a seed like a peeled chestnut, and between this and the rind is the part which is eaten, which is abundant, and a paste similar to butter and of very good taste,” he wrote in his glowing early version of a food blog.
1920s: A PR campaign starts
By the late 19th century, avocados had been planted as a crop in California, where it was called the ‘alligator pear’ - but they weren’t selling.
So, the California Avocado Society took out ads in The New Yorker and Vogue extolling them as the “aristocrat of salad fruits.” This was the start of the now-familiar air of superiority around avocados.
1968: What on Earth?
Marks & Spencer claim they introduced avocados to UK supermarkets, when they stocked them as 'avocado pears' in 1968. At the time, we Brits did not take to them.
People were confused by the name: when one customer complained after she’d stewed her avocado pear and served it with custard, M&S even started selling them with leaflets explaining they were intended to be a salad item.
1990s: Guac attack
In the early 1990s, Avocado farmers in California were seeking new ways to market their product.
They decided to target the Super Bowl. Watching American football, they reasoned, meant eating crisps and dip, and what’s a good dip? That Mexican favourite guacamole, of course.
They gave out samples, offered recipes - and it worked. These days, guacamole fans consume more than 47 million kilos of avocado every year on Super Bowl Sunday.
2010s: World domination, via Gwyneth
With the rise of guacamole, people started wondering: what else could you do with them…?
In 2013, the actor and lifestyle-peddler Gwyneth Paltrow made ‘avocado on toast’ one of the key components in her best-selling cookbook 'It’s All Good'.
The book coincided with the rise of ‘clean eating’. This movement arguably began with the widespread adoption of a ‘Californian’ lifestyle – think athleisure, green juices, salads – as showcased by papped celebrities (with Gwyneth Paltrow chief among them).
Avocado recipes began popping up everywhere, most of them citing its ‘superfood’ qualities (in particular the fact that 75% of the fat in avocados is unsaturated, ‘good fat’) and its huge versatility as an ingredient.
Before we knew it, avocados had enraptured health-conscious millennials. They started selling so well that ‘avocado hand’ became a recognised medical condition. They soon spawned a soft, green merchandising empire – from avocado mugs and babygros to an entirely avocado-themed online gift shop.
The great avo rush hasn't been without broader consequence. Hipster cafes don't tend to mention it, but there have been reports of drug cartels controlling the avocado supply in Central America, as well as claims that avocado consumption is fuelling illegal deforestation in Mexico. And avocados are thirsty plants: by most estimates, avocado farming requires at least two or three times more water than potato farming.
Nonetheless, the avo's quest for global domination doesn’t appear to be slowing down in 2018. Before Christmas, M&S began selling what it called the 'holy grail' of avocados: a stoneless version that’s the result of an unpollinated blossom.
Head to East Asia and they’re taking over the world’s fastest-growing economy, too: China imported 32,100 tonnes of avocados last year, which was more than 1,000 times the number in 2011. And then, of course, there’s Virgin Trains jokily offering millennial customers a third off if they showed an avocado when buying their ticket. Avocados as official currency? Don’t be surprised...
There’s no point fighting it anymore. Our future is soft, green, slightly irritating and undeniably good for you. The avo has ripened - and boy, is it seizing its moment.
This article was originally published on 10 April 2018.