Ripe for Global Domination: The Story of the Avocado

Avocados are on a roll. More precisely, they're on toast—a lot of toast. Last summer, British Vogue reported that more than three million new photos of avocado toast are uploaded to Instagram every day. But how did this humble fruit, originally named after testicles, get from its Mexican forest home to a tattoo on Miley Cyrus's upper arm? This episode, we unravel the avocado's amazing journey, a story that involves not only conquistadors and cartel violence, but also a Southern California postman and actress Angie Dickinson lounging in a white leotard. And we discover where the avocado is headed next—a place where it's known as the butter fruit, and often consumed in shake form. Listen in now for all this creamy green goodness and more.

Nobody is sure exactly where the avocado first came from, but the earliest evidence for its consumption dates back 10,000 years, from the remains of settlements in central Mexico. The avocado tree itself is, of course, much more ancient, so ancient that it had already been a so-called "evolutionary ghost" for three thousand years by that point. Its partners in evolution—the giant, elephant-like gomphotheres and three-ton ground sloths that dined on its fruit in return for transporting and then pooping out its giant seed—went extinct soon after the first bipedal apes arrived in the region. Rodents, jaguars, and eventually humans stepped in as dispersal mechanisms, albeit significantly less effective ones. The flourishing avocado forests that carpeted much of Mesoamerica during the Cenozoic era dwindled and died out. And, as Mary Lu Arpaia, who runs the avocado breeding program at the University of California, Riverside, explained, the avocado became a backyard fruit, enjoyed by first the indigenous peoples and later the conquistadors, but rarely cultivated intensively—until recent decades.

The story of this anachronistic fruit's astonishing resurgence hinges on a trade agreement. With the help of financial columnist Brook Larmer, we explore the machinations that turned the avocado into green gold. But the avocado's rise is more than just a business story: smashed up on a piece of toasted bread, avocado has become a signifier of a certain lifestyle, popularized by none other than Gwyneth Paltrow. Although journalist Lauren Oyler warned us that trying to pinpoint the dish's origins is "a fool's errand," she nonetheless guides us through the celebrity-strewn story, dissecting avocado toast's allure—and expense. Today, avocado is everywhere: it's worshipped for its heart-healthy fats, and blamed for bankrupting a generation. But, according to Larmer, we're nowhere near peak avocado yet. Listen in now for the next chapter in the avocado's astonishing history.

As promised, Angie Dickinson in a white leotard, advertising California avocados in the 1980s.

Episode Notes

Mary Lu Arpaia

Mary Lu Arpaia leads the avocado breeding program at the University of California, Riverside. Cynthia visited her and her colleague Erich Focht to learn more about the avocado and their work—and to taste the avocado varieties of the future. We'll have much more on that—including a new variety that is reportedly better than the Hass—in our special Gastropod Super-Fan newsletter, which goes out to supporters every two weeks. Find out how you can get in on that here.

Brook Larmer

Brook Larmer is the On Money columnist for The New York Times Magazine. Read his recent column, "How the Avocado Became the Fruit of Global Trade," here.

Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler is a freelance journalist who wrote about her search for the origins of avocado toast for Broadly, the women's website at Vice.

Luis Mario Tapio Vargas

Luis Mario Tapio Vargas leads the water and soil management research program at Mexico's National Research Institute for Forests and Agriculture (INIFAP).

The Food Explorer: The Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats, by Daniel Stone

We spent our last episode telling this story, but we brought Daniel Stone back this week to tell us about Fairchild's role in the origin of the world's most popular avocado variety, the Hass. If you haven't already, check out Stone's new book, for more Fairchild fun!

Note on language

Please note that this episode contains two swear words.


For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors