This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Ripe for Global Domination: The Story of the Avocado, first released on May 8, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Alright, I’m in my kitchen Cynthia, and I feel as though it’s time for some lunch.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I am thinking the same thing, and I have a really lovely ripe avocado here on the counter.
TWILLEY: I do too! I do too!
GRABER: Perfect! You might even think we planned this.
GRABER: Oh come on, don’t tell me we’re out of bread, that would be really bad.
TWILLEY: There’s no avocado toast without the toast.
GRABER: Oh here we go. God. Okay, I’ve got bread. I’m just cutting it into thin slices. The bread is ready, I’m just kind of laying out the thin slices of avocado on the toast. Okay, little mashing on the bread here.
TWILLEY: Yeah so I am so freaking bougie that I am going to put a few little pink slivers of pickled radish on mine.
GRABER: You have pink pickled radish ready for yours?
TWILLEY: Cynthia, I’m living that healthy southern California lifestyle.
GRABER: Okay, I’m sprinkling some beautiful salt on top.
TWILLEY: Oh my God, this so pretty. The pink on the green? I feel like I could literally invite Gwyneth Paltrow round to lunch.
TWILLEY: Hi Gwyneth, are your ears burning? We’re talking about you.
GRABER: No, don’t worry, we are not going to spend this episode talking about Gwyneth Paltrow. We are, though, going to be talking about an incredibly delicious fruit—yes, avocado is a fruit—and how it became the symbol of an aspirational lifestyle.
TWILLEY: We are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I am Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. So, this avocado toast thing, how in the world did it become a thing?
TWILLEY: More importantly, how did a fruit that is named after male genitalia become the poster child of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the next big thing in China?
MARY LU ARPAIA: It’s a New World fruit. It’s native to Mexico and Central America.
TWILLEY: That’s Mary Lu Arpaia. She’s head of the avocado breeding program at UC Riverside, near me in sunny Southern California.
GRABER: Nobody is sure exactly where the avocado first came from, but the oldest evidence we have that people were eating avocados comes from settlements from 10,000 years ago in Puebla, in Central Mexico.
TWILLEY: And again, no one is exactly sure where and when the avocado was domesticated—it might have happened more than once. But it was probably at least 7,000 years ago. The oldest known culture in the Americas, the Caral civilization of Peru—archaeologists have found evidence that they likely ate domesticated avocados, more than 3000 years ago.
GRABER: The Caral don’t seem to have been eating corn or other grains, and the same is true for another early culture called the Mokaya in what’s now Mexico and Guatemala. And so avocado may have played a really important role in their diets as a major staple.
TWILLEY: And we know the Maya valued avocados—the symbol they used for the 14th month of the year in their calendar was an avocado.
BROOK LARMER: When the Spanish conquistadors came to Latin America back in the 16th century, they encountered this fruit that they had never seen before that had this Aztec name ahuacatl, which means testicle actually, in the old ancient Nahuatl language.
GRABER: Brook Larmer is the “On Money” columnist for The New York Times Magazine and wrote a recent story on avocados. The Aztecs called these strange bumpy fruits testicles because they hung low, often in groups of two.
TWILLEY: And they look kind of testically in shape. I mean, I can see testicles in anything, but still.
LARMER: But the Spanish conquistadors took that name and made it into aguacate, from which our avocado has now derived in English.
TWILLEY: The conquistadors were big avocado fans, right away. The first written description of the avocado comes in 1519, from a Spanish guy called Martin Fernandez de Enciso. He described it as quote “an orange, and when it is ready for eating it turns yellowish; that which it contains is like butter and is of marvelous flavor, so good and pleasing to the palate that it is a marvelous thing.”
GRABER: Other conquistadors sang the praise of avocados as well. They likened them to figs. They said that avocados are healthy fruit for sick people, and when eaten with sugar, is like a preserve. They also said that avocados are like pears, but better.
TWILLEY: From the Spanish records we can get an idea of how indigenous Mesoamericans were using the avocado. They documented instances when it was used to pay nobility as a tribute, but they also wrote that it was for sale in the open air markets of Tenochtitlan. And apparently pigs used to gorge on the ripe fruit when it fell from the trees. Their meat was said to have a particularly excellent flavor.
GRABER: So it’s no surprise that the Spanish quickly adopted the avocado as a favorite fruit and eventually distributed it to other Spanish colonies, all around the world, where they started to grow it, too. But the avocado didn’t become a major commercial crop until recently.
ARPAIA: Even though it was grown as a door yard crop tree throughout Central America and valued for thousands of years, there was no intensive agriculture production of avocados actually until the industry in California and to some extent an industry in Florida started just about 100 years ago.
TWILLEY: What this means is that folks like Mary Lu, they’ve still got a lot to learn about the avocado’s evolution and its different varieties and its botany in general compared to more established crops like wheat. What we do know is that the avocado really old, in flowering plant terms.
ARPAIA: It’s a member of the laurel family. This is a very, very ancient part of the angiosperms.
GRABER: So ancient in fact that you have to imagine back millions of years ago, to a time when huge ground sloths the size of giraffes and mammoths stomped around avocado trees. These are the types of animals that could swallow a pit that big and then poop it out. These mega-sized animals went extinct about 13,000 years ago, but rodents picked up the avocado reproduction baton. They gnaw on avocado flesh and leave the seed to grow.
TWILLEY: Not the avocado’s target audience, but hey, it works.
GRABER: So for thousands of years, these ancient backyard angiosperms, they came in all sorts of varieties, and sizes.
TWILLEY: But not here in California.
ARPAIA: Over time we’ve gone to the point where now here in California we’re 95 percent Hass.
TWILLEY: Hass is the name of an avocado variety—really, the avocado variety that you see in stores today.
ARPAIA: Hass was a chance seedling that was actually found in La Habra Heights.
TWILLEY: La Habra Heights is a neighborhood in southeast LA, just a few miles down the road from me.
GRABER: And guess who’s behind this chance seedling?
TWILLEY: Oh my God, it is none other than our old friend, the globe trotting food explorer David Fairchild.
DAN STONE: Fairchild picks up what he sees as the greatest avocado in Chile.
GRABER: In case you don’t remember, our most recent episode was all about Dan Stone’s book called The Food Explorer. And this is Dan, describing another one of Fairchild’s adventures.
STONE: He’s visiting Chile in 1897, and he explores and he finds this great variety. It’s got a thick skin, it’s got creamy flesh. It’s not stringy at all. And he collects a thousand seeds and sends them back to Washington in hopes that at least a few will survive. A few do. And they are received in Washington, they are propagated. They are sent out to research stations in southern California toward the coast, around Fallbrook area and greater Los Angeles.
TWILLEY: There were already some avocados in California. They were brought here in the 1850s by settlers from Nicaragua. But Fairchild’s shipment of a whole bunch of new varieties got people excited about avocados again.
STONE: And people start experimenting with avocados. Farmers start growing them and scientists start breeding their seeds and seeing how they could improve them. Amateurs get into it too. In fact one of them is a postal worker, a letter carrier and in his spare time he just grows avocados in his backyard and one day one sprouts even better.
ARPAIA: It was the seed that was planted in the mid 1920s and the grower who actually was a postal worker kept trying to top-on the tree to the variety that was the dominant variety of the day. The graft kept failing. Then he finally gave up for different reasons. And then all of a sudden he realized he actually had something of value.
STONE: It’s straighter, its fruit comes faster, its skin is even thicker, its flesh is even creamier and greener. And so he decides to patent it and his name was Rudolf Hass.
TWILLEY: The mother Hass tree—it was actually still alive and growing in La Habra Heights. Apparently it got to an astonishing 65 feet tall. When I read this, I got so excited I was about to jump in the car and visit it, but then I read some more, and it died in 2002, from the dreaded root rot. There’s a plaque there now, instead, and the mother tree wood is still preserved at a nursery in Ventura.
GRABER: But even though the mother Hass tree has become so venerated that there’s a plaque for it, back when Hass avocados were new, this variety wasn’t an immediate hit.
ARPAIA: And if you read some of the older literature though, the thing that it had going against it was the fact that it turned black. There was a very nice article written in the mid 1940s where they’re complaining about well, you know the Hass is a great tree. It’s a great fruit. But my God, it’s black, not green! Because the dominant variety in the 40s up through the 70s was a Fuerte, which was a green variety. So it just shows how things have changed.
GRABER: So the black color freaked out consumers. But even though it took a few decades, both growers and eaters did eventually get used to it. Because this brand new Hass avocado had a lot going for it.
ARPAIA: Well I can go—I can wax on forever on that one.
TWILLEY: Let’s wax. First of all, in California, the Hass avocado ripens at a very convenient time.
GRABER: Farmers can harvest the Hass in March through June, after the Fuerte’s harvest is over. But it’s not just an addition to the Fuerte…
ARPAIA: The other thing is is that the fruit hung on the tree better.
TWILLEY: Mary Lu is not yet done listing the Hass’s virtues.
ARPAIA: The fruit is very easy to handle. It hides a lot of blemishes when it’s ripe because it turns black.
TWILLEY: And, and, and. The Hass is also the only avocado that Mexico and Peru are allowed to ship to the U.S., which makes it a pretty popular choice there too.
ARPAIA: Because they have insect pests in their countries. And research that was done in Mexico indicated that the Hass actually is a very poor host to fruit flies.
GRABER: There are all sorts of varieties grown in Mexico, but the Hass is the only one they can export. So this explains why small, black nubby Hass avocados have come to dominate the supermarket shelves today. But why have avocados themselves become so super popular?
TWILLEY: Well, they weren’t, at least not during the great Hass-Fuerte battles of the 30s through the 70s. They weren’t big in the U.S. or much of the rest of the world. In Central America and the northern part of South America, though, the avocado has always been a hit.
LUIS MARIO TAPIO VARGAS: Here in Mexico in a commercial way avocado was grown in small orchards. Main type of avocado fruit was a small fruit and thin-skinned, with large seed and scarce pulp or meat. Low commercial value but good flavor.
GRABER: Luis Mario Tapio Vargas studies water and soil management at the National Research institute for Forests and Agriculture. He’s based in Michoacan.
TWILLEY: Even with the introduction of the Hass, which had more flesh than seed and a sturdier skin—even then, the rest of the world took some convincing. Part of the problem with the avocado was its name.
LARMER: In the early 20th century in the United States, it was marketed as the alligator pear. Which might explain why it never caught on because it’s not a great name.
GRABER: Not a great name at all. The California Avocado Growers’ Exchange complained in the 1920s that associating the delicious fruit with an alligator was, quote, ruining the avocado business!
TWILLEY: Eventually the growers got their way and we now call alligator pears by a bastardized version of the Spanish bastardized version of the Nahuatl word which means testicle fruit.
GRABER: Because testicle fruit also was clearly not going to be a winner.
TWILLEY: Testicles and alligators aside, the avocado had bigger problems that just its name. In the rest of the world, the places where the avocado wasn’t from—people had no idea how to eat it. It was a fruit, but it wasn’t sweet, it was sort of slippery, it didn’t really cook well.
LARMER: I think when people first encounter the avocado, they’re getting them kind of off the truck and they’re just not edible. They’re hard. They don’t really know what to do with them.
GRABER: So on top of all the avocado’s challenges, consumers are buying them unripe. It is not looking good for the avocado. So how did we get to today? Lauren Oyler wrote an article about the rise of avocado toast—yes, we’ll get to that—and she looked back at how a few bold eaters in the U.S. were at least trying avocados in the early 1900s.
TWILLEY: She found a New Yorker article from 1937, called Avocado, comma, or the future of eating, by one S.J. Perelman.
LAUREN OYLER: And he goes to a restaurant in Los Angeles and has an avocado sandwich on whole wheat and a lime rickey at a pharmacy called Best drugstores. And so at that point you can see at least that there’s the concept of avocado on bread is emerging in our culinary consciousness in America. And then I also founded a 1962 New York Times article that says you could put avocado in a toasted sandwich and that would be an unusual way to serve it.
GRABER: Lauren’s point is that most people were not eating avocados. There weren’t as many Mexicans in the U.S. back then, and most non-Mexican Americans at the time weren’t eating as many tacos or chips and guacamole as they are today.
TWILLEY: Most Americans at the time would not necessarily have known what guacamole was.
GRABER: Plus, avocados were seasonal and only grew in certain areas of California and Florida, and so they were expensive.
TWILLEY: In fact, at nearly 5 bucks an avocado, they were apparently often stolen from grocery stores. And they were marketed as fancy foods: if you really wanted to impress your guests, you could serve an avocado with lobster as a elegant appetizer. That’s actually how I first encountered the avocado—my mum would serve it at dinner parties with the hole where the pit used to be filled with prawn cocktail.
GRABER: Plus you know, the 60s and 70s, this is also the beginning of the whole crazy ‘fat is bad’ time in American history, and avocados are pretty fatty, and they would have been seen as unhealthy. So the California Avocado Commission responded with a marketing campaign.
TWILLEY: They poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in to this. The first step: convince folks that avocados are actually healthy.
TWILLEY: Yep, that sexy avocado fan is the actress Angie Dickinson, and she is lying alluringly on her side, dressed casually in gold high heels and a shiny white leotard, just, you know, scooping an avocado out of its skin with a teaspoon.
GRABER: As one does. In a white leotard.
TWILLEY: We’ve got the video on our website for all your avocado-eating wardrobe inspo needs.
GRABER: I can see how this commercial would send everyone running to the supermarket. But that wasn’t all the commission did. They funded studies showing that the fat in avocado helped increase nutrient absorption. They partnered with Harvard to promote the Mediterranean diet, full of so-called healthy fats. This was an all-out avocado blitz.
TWILLEY: But there was another problem. People were buying these fancy avocados while they were shiny and green and trying to eat them. Which was not nearly as fun and delicious as eating a ripe avocado.
GRABER: The commission even introduced a mascot called Mr. Ripe. As in, make sure your avocados are actually ripe! And to get some attention, they launched a contest looking for his perfect mate—Ms. Ripe, who would, quote, exemplify the California lifestyle of good health and healthy eating.
TWILLEY: But even with Mr. and Ms. Ripe AND Angie Dickinson encouraging folks to put their avocados in a paper bag or on the windowsill and let them ripen for a few days, the fact remained: it’s annoying to have to plan in advance to get a ripe avocado. Who shops four days ahead?
GRABER: And then, Brook Larmer told us that an avocado farmer named Gil Henry came up with a revolutionary idea.
LARMER: But the guy who I talked to in Southern California who helped come up with this this idea—he and his children went up to the local market in L.A. and watched people buy avocados and he realized that people would go up there and kind of feel around the avocado and if they didn’t find a ripe one or one that gave a little bit to the thumb push they would just walk away.
TWILLEY: In fact, the avocado commission installed a hidden camera in a California supermarket in the early 1980s, and the footage showed shopper after shopper squeezing the fruit and putting it back down. It was just lost sale after lost sale.
LARMER: And so he had this idea—we will do this.
GRABER: This was invent ripening rooms for avocados! Gil modeled his avocado ripening rooms after after banana ripening rooms. They’re basically refrigerated rooms where the avocados would hang out, and small amounts of ethylene would be pumped in. Ethylene is a plant hormone and it’s what causes the fruit to ripen.
ARPAIA: And so that’s very, very important commercially.
GRABER: This way, all the avocados ripen together, at more or less the same time, before they even land on the grocery store shelf.
LARMER: And so first in Ralph’s grocery stores in Los Angeles and then that expanded to Kroger which owned Ralph’s and that became something where that was also a factor in getting people to buy avocados.
TWILLEY: Today, all avocados go through this ripening room process. It’s revolutionized the avocado business—the chances that you can find a ripe ready to eat avocado at the store are approximately 100 percent better than they were in the early 1980s. And so shoppers now put those avocados in their basket after squeezing them.
GRABER: And a side effect of all of this is that it causes the Hass avocado to fully take over the market. Beforehand, when avocados were sold unripe, the green Fuerte ones looked nicer, they were shiny and green. But once they’re sold ripe, the Fuertes would show any bruises to the soft fruit, while the black Hass avocados hide any small blemishes.
TWILLEY: So, between this massive marketing effort, the invention of the ripening room, the name change, and the nutrition message, the avocado is poised to finally become a regular part of the American diet. But the thing that really pushed it over the edge? Much less glamorous than Ms. Ripe. It was a trade agreement.
GRABER: But before we get to how NAFTA led to the avocado’s world domination, we have some sponsors to tell you about.
GRABER: In 1994, the avocado finally hit the big time—because of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Yep, NAFTA.
LARMER: But something else had to happen first. There was a ban on Mexican avocados that was imposed way back in 1914, ostensibly over fears of boll weevils getting into the agricultural crops in California. And it protected the California farmers from infestation. But it also kind of protected them from cheap competition. So there was this great fear in the United States that opening the doors to Mexican avocados in this particular industry would would destroy the California industry.
TWILLEY: So when it came to the talks about the avocado during the NAFTA negotiations…
LARMER: Well, they were hardly talks, they were more arguments. The fights that went into trying to lift its ban were extremely heated. I talked to one U.S. distributor who said that he went into this meeting in southern California to talk about lifting the ban and he was a distributor so he favored bringing in Mexican imports. He said that he was spat at and shouted at and basically kicked out of the meeting.
GRABER: A few years after NAFTA was signed, the ban on Mexican avocados was finally lifted. At first it was just for 19 states in the northeast.
LARMER: Far away from California so that the New Englanders could consume avocados in the wintertime. That gradual incremental lifting of that restriction was full fully enacted by about a decade later. And that’s what really led to the explosion.
TWILLEY: And explosion is the right word.
LARMER: You know, back in 1997, Americans only consumed avocados in the summertime when the California avocados were harvested. None of those were imported. You know, today Americans can eat avocados year round almost anywhere—if they can afford it.
TWILLEY: Post-NAFTA, avocado demand has grown exponentially. Twenty-five years ago, Americans were eating barely one pound of avocado per person per year. Now it’s more than seven.
GRABER: The other thing that’s boomed is ways to eat all that avocado.
TWILLEY: To go back again to when I was a kid in the 80s, encountering avocados in England, we had them on the half shell. Like Angie Dickinson. Though not, I hasten to add, in a white leotard. You scooped out the flesh with a teaspoon. When the pit hole wasn’t being filled with something fancy like prawn cocktail, we used to put vinaigrette in there. But that was the only way I knew to eat an avocado.
GRABER: And I don’t remember even seeing anything like that, at least not in my house or my friends’ houses. I do think my family went out to kind of Tex-Mex restaurants on occasion. I remember one down the street from my house in the 80s.
LARMER: In the United States we have this Mexican-American community that is growing along with the explosion of Tex-Mex food.
GRABER: And so people like me and my family started to eat more guacamole in their everyday lives. It also became one of the foods popular to snack on during the Super Bowl, so the avocado commission decided to do a big PR push to get folks to eat even MORE guacamole during the Super Bowl.
AVOCADO SUPER BOWL AD
GRABER: If it’s not obvious, they are trying to hypnotize us all into consuming even more guacamole. And it worked! Super Bowl weekend became one of the most important dates for avocado consumption in the U.S..
TWILLEY: According to the Mexican Avocado Association, a full twelve percent of America’s annual avocado consumption takes place during the Super Bowl!
LARMER: But 80 percent of those are imported and almost nine out of 10 of those imports are from Mexico—specifically from the state of Michoacan.
GRABER: So Americans are eating lots of avocados—that’s a win for the marketing campaign and, in theory, the growers. But these avocados are from Mexico! Sounds like exactly the nightmare that the California growers were worried about. So, did this mean that California avocado farmers were doomed? What happened to them?
LARMER: Well, remarkably this is a case of the rising tide lifting all boats. The year-round availability of avocados helped expand the visibility and attractiveness of avocados for everybody. So there was the growing market and the explosion among consumers only helped the Californians.
TWILLEY: Part of this is because Mexico’s production actually fills a gap around the California growers season. Under the NAFTA rules, California avocados get priority during their season, and Mexico, where avocados bloom four times a year, gets everything else.
GRABER: But even if California could extend its season dramatically, the state couldn’t possibly meet this new and still growing demand for avocados even if the farmers wanted to. There isn’t enough water and land.
LARMER: And so they really need this kind of extra input from Mexican avocados. And so the analysis is that there’s a real benefit to the United States economy—not just that California agricultural growers are spared but also it’s adding many, many jobs. I think there’s something like 19,000 jobs—new jobs for American workers. More than two billion dollars added to U.S. GDP simply by avocados.
TWILLEY: OK, so California farmers are happy, American avocado eaters are happy. But what about the place where all these avocados are coming from?
LARMER: In Mexico, most of the avocados are grown in a single state: the state of Michoacan, which is in south central Mexico, not far west of Mexico City, that goes down to the Pacific coast. And it’s not something that’s run by big agribusiness. It’s actually there are 20,000 individual orchards that are coordinated by a National Association.
GRABER: Michoacan is the only state that’s actually legally allowed to export avocados to the U.S. And the state has been completely transformed by avocados.
LARMER: It dominates the agriculture in that state.
TWILLEY: So what has the rise of the avocado meant for Michoacan?
LARMER: Well it’s interesting. Michoacan is a beautiful state. It has volcanoes and forests. I remember my first trip to Michoacan way back a few decades ago was to see the sanctuary where Monarch butterflies migrate in the winter from the United States. And you know, these are butterflies that have come three generations or four generations since the original migrants to the United States and they all come back to the same trees in a couple different preserves in Michoacan state and in the state of Mexico. That was my first trip and it’s just—it’s a gorgeous state.
GRABER: Those volcanoes and forests are part of why Michoacan is so great for avocados—it has really fertile soil and lots of rainfall.
LARMER: In California one of the real issues is water because avocado trees are extremely thirsty. Michoacan is blessed with, I think more than 70 percent of the orchards are naturally fed by springs, rivers, natural irrigation.
TWILLEY: So water usage is not a big issue, at least in Michoacan. The bigger environmental issue, at least for now, is what the avocado is doing to all those gorgeous forests.
LARMER: The Mexican environmental authorities estimate that about 50,000 acres a year are deforested in the state of Michoacan.
GRABER: It’s a big problem—and it’s not just because of avocado farms. But they are one of the causes. We asked Mario, the researcher who works on forest and water issues.
TAPIO VARGAS: The natural forests has been deforested for three main causes: illegal logging, forest fires, and avocado planting.
LARMER: And about 30 percent of that is due to avocado growing. The growers association will respond that well, most of these new orchards were previously used for other crops that have transferred their growing to avocados because they’re much more lucrative.
TWILLEY: So the avocado is not the only culprit here.
GRABER: And, in case you you were worried about the future of the Monarch butterflies, the forests that are being cut down for avocados aren’t the ones where the Monarchs go to spend the winter. Those are higher up in colder areas that aren’t as good for avocado farming.
TWILLEY: But still, as an avocado eater, I would love to enjoy my daily dose of creamy green goodness without contributing to deforestation. Mario told us that there had been some discussion about a law that would protect the forest and actually require avocado growers to return 10 percent of their cultivated land to wild forest.
TAPIO VARGAS: I am not optimistic of this situation.
GRABER: The growers fought back. And the government wasn’t interested in pushing this law, partly because it has bigger things to deal with, like drugs. And partly because, Mario thinks that corrupt government officials are making money from avocados.
TWILLEY: So what should a concerned avocado eater do? Mario says that in fact, we are the ones who can make a difference.
TAPIO VARGAS: The only way to protect is that, for example, that the United States said, I don’t buy you more avocados if you continue deforesting your lands.
GRABER: This strategy—that American demand can make a difference—it worked in the past. Mario said that avocado crops had been poorly handled, there were lots of pesticides left on and bacteria, but Americans wouldn’t put up with that. So Mexican farmers improved their farming methods to meet the demand. Mario thinks the same thing could happen with the forests—that if US consumers demand avocados that don’t contribute to deforestation, that could help save the forests.
LARMER: And but there’s also another problem in Michoacan, which is that this is the center of the Mexican drug war.
TWILLEY: Drug cartels in Mexico have made so much money from Americans looking to smoke pot and take meth that they have actually pretty much replaced the government in some places. They are super powerful along the west coast and in Michoacan too.
LARMER: So you can imagine when avocado profits in the last 20 years started to rise the cartels were quite interested. I mean in Michoacan avocados are known as oro verde, you know, green gold. And the cartels became kind of an insidious influence within the avocado industry. There were different groups, one called the Knights Templar who kind of had this medieval chivalric code and came in but extorted growers, kidnapped owners, usurped land. They created a kind of almost a war like situation for growers—it became very dangerous for the larger owners especially. Today those the Knights Templar have faded from the scene, La Familia Michoacana has faded from the scene, and now there’s a small splinter group called Los Viagras, which is apparently named for the leader who had heavily moussed hair that kind of stood on its end.
TWILLEY: On one level, if anyone is going to control the testicle fruit trade, it should be the Viagra gang. But seriously—cartel violence is a gigantic problem.
GRABER: You may even have noticed reports in the U.S. media in recent years about blood avocados. I mean, it’s not just that we don’t to eat something that’s contributing to deforestation—I definitely don’t want to eat something that’s supporting the cartels!
TWILLEY: But Brook tells us that in the past couple of years, things have looked up a little.
LARMER: In response to a lot of this cartel activity many of these smaller towns have have created self-defense militias, usually formed by the owners themselves. Many of the owners have teamed together to try to keep the peace and keep their avocados. There’s one place in particular called Tancitaro, which has become famous as the last place where it has this kind of self-defense militia. It’s like an 80-person force where they surround their town with checkpoints and the producers have to work with armed bodyguards. But they’ve now celebrated four years without a kidnapping which is considered a success. So the cartels are still an influence on it, although they haven’t really slowed down production, which is quite amazing.
TWILLEY: And again, like the deforestation issue, the cartel violence is not entirely the avocados’ fault.
LARMER: I mean, first of all, I think that the drug cartels were not created by avocados, they happened to attract the cartels because of their lucrative nature.
GRABER: And actually, Mario says that avocados have been really good for Michoacan in a lot of ways.
TAPIO VARGAS: The avocado in orchards have permitted that the people, the poor people of many communities that was in the poverty, now they are in economic best conditions.
TWILLEY: And those economic benefits means that more people can stay in their homes with their families.
LARMER: Michoacan is a huge sending community—or has been a sending area for migrants to United States. But avocados have kept more people closer to the land without necessarily needing to migrate.
GRABER: Great to know that we can enjoy Mexican avocados with very little guilt. Because frankly, what would happen to Instagram feeds of <illennials if you took away their avocado toast? Just kidding, don’t write us angry emails.
TWILLEY: And for even less guilt—if you want to get rid of that lingering worry that your avocados from Mexico are contributing to deforestation—right now the best you can do is look for an organic, Rainforest Alliance, or Equal Exchange label. Rainforest Alliance and Equal Exchange avocados are hard to find, and organic doesn’t specifically guarantee that the grower is not cutting down virgin forest, but it does mean that the cultivation is less intensive and doesn’t pollute the groundwater as much. Not a perfect solution, but one that means you can go ahead and have your avocado and eat it on toast … just don’t expect to be able buy a house as well.
GRABER: As some would have you think. We are coming right back to take our usual nuanced look at the strange phenomenon that is avocado toast.
OYLER: So I was actually talking to someone yesterday and I was like, oh I’m going to do an interview for a podcast about avocado toast and they were like yeah! what — it’s like — what is it exactly? I’m not really sure I understand? I’m like: it’s literally what it sounds like.
GRABER: It’s avocado. On toast.
TWILLEY: This is Lauren Oyler again, journalist and author of an in-depth look at the origins of avocado toast. And, in case you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, avocado toast is having something of a moment right now.
OYLER: I feel like I came to avocado appreciation relatively late in life. I grew up in West Virginia and it’s not that we didn’t have avocados there but it’s not like one of the main food groups as it is in somewhere like New York or L.A. or even Berlin where I used to live.
GRABER: Lauren first noticed avocado being served on toast just a few years ago, when she moved to Berlin after college
OYLER: I don’t really remember eating it in college. And I graduated in 2012. And then when I lived in Berlin there are a lot of Australians living there and there are a lot of Australian cafes and I think that is probably the first time that I really noticed it on a menu.
TWILLEY: This is kind of late in avocado toast terms. Or at least in terms of the current wave of avocado toast. Because the question of avocado toast’s origins is a tricky one.
OYLER: Because you could certainly argue that avocado on a tortilla is the original avocado toast. right? But I think that’s a fundamentally different eating experience though it may be a predecessor to avocado toast—probably certainly is a predecessor to avocado toast.
GRABER: Which today is basically mashed avocado on toast, with maybe salt and pepper, and a few beautiful garnishes, like Nicky’s pickled pink radishes. That avocado toast is now found on the menu at restaurants and cafes basically everywhere. But Lauren wondered, where did it first come from, this current incarnation of avocado toast?
OYLER: There’s truth to the idea that Australia popularized avocado toast in the way that we know it today, which is sort of like a glamorous snack or meal that one can take a nice photo of for one’s Instagram account. Generally the first menu avocado toast is said to be at a cafe called Bill’s, I think, in 1993, in Sydney.
TWILLEY: Bill’s is a trendy all-day restaurant run by a well-known Australian chef called Bill Granger. He has confessed that he had no idea what he was starting when he first put avocado toast on his menu—he says he just thought avocado was a nice thing to have with a bit of tomato on toast.
OYLER: He published a recipe for avocado toast and he put in his cookbook and he was sort of like, I felt dumb putting a recipe for this in my cookbook because it’s so easy and obvious that you shouldn’t need a recipe. But I needed to fill a page.
GRABER: It wasn’t an overnight success. But then a little more than a decade later, an Australian chef named Chloe Osborne put avocado toast on the menu at Cafe Gitane in Manhattan.
TWILLEY: And then came Gwyneth. Paltrow, in case you’re not on first name terms. She put avocado toast in her 2013 cookbook, It’s All Good. And this, according to Lauren, is the moment when avocado toast went from being a thing you ate to a cultural phenomenon.
GRABER: So much so that Miley Cyrus has a tattoo of a half an avocado on her upper left arm. But when we say phenomenon—really, it’s kind of crazy how much the avocado and avocado toast, of course, have taken over.
OYLER: So that. But then I also talked to some people who grew up in California in the 70s, and they were like, yeah we ate avocado on toast too.
TWILLEY: Yeah, not everyone is on board with the Bill’s-Cafe Gitane-Gwyneth origin story for avocado toast. Turns out people have been mashing avocado onto grain-based products for a while.
OYLER: After I published that article someone messaged me saying that her sister or something had spent a lot of time in Tel Aviv and that they always ate avocado on toast too, so that she thought that that meant that they had invented it.
GRABER: This was my experience—I first fell in love with avocado in the 90s, when I was living in Israel, and everyone just sliced avocado and put it on bread and sprinkled some salt on it. And I was like, this is delicious. Not revolutionary, just delicious.
OYLER: But I think trying to pinpoint the origin of it is a fool’s errand.
TWILLEY: No shit. But the real question is why? Why has avocado toast transcended its status as snack to become a symbol of everything?
GRABER: Part of it is that it’s become something that somehow seems pure and fresh and healthy and the good fatty, and somehow just perfect.
OYLER: I think as a status symbol. Avocado toast does does sort of advertise a certain lifestyle, which is like a wellness, a healthy lifestyle, which now is a kind of status symbol. And along with, like, doing yoga or going to Soul Cycle or going on a vacation to, like, Joshua Tree or something, avocado toast can, like, signify a certain kind of person and a certain kind of aspirational lifestyle.
TWILLEY: And it turns out that avocado toast is the perfect visual aid to advertise that lifestyle. It is the Instagram food par excellence. Last July, British Vogue reported that 3 million new pictures of avocado toast are uploaded to Instagram every day! Which truly says something about our times.
GRABER: I can’t even wrap my head around that figure. So why in the world has avocado toast taken over Instagram? What makes it such a perfect model? Once again, Lauren has the analysis.
OYLER: I think the color green of an avocado is bright and alluring but it’s not so bright that you can’t pair it with other colors. So you often see like a radish on avocado toast or like shaved—maybe like shaved beets or some kind of beet-like thing and so with the contrasting with the pink or the purple, it looks really, really nice.
TWILLEY: It’s beautiful and healthy and… it’s expensive.
OYLER: So there was a controversy semi recently in which I think an Australian investor or a millionaire or some sort of rich Australian non-Millennial was deriding the Millennial generation and saying that the reason we couldn’t afford to buy houses was because we’re spending so much money on avocado toast and coffees that cost four dollars.
TWILLEY: A tsunami of people helpfully told this dude he had his head up his ass and the real reason Millennials can’t buy homes is not actually because they’re spending all their money on avocado toast.
OYLER: But because of the raging income inequality and the subprime mortgage crisis and all the sort of economic stuff that has been pushed onto us from the older generations. And while I agree with the structural critique of his statement, I also do feel like avocado toast is quite expensive. And also it’s something that you can make at home for very cheap. And so I don’t want to say I see where he’s coming from because it was a stupid comment. But avocado toast is quite expensive. I mean, like, you can get it for like 13 dollars in some places in New York. Which is more than I’m going to spend on a piece of toast, shall we say.
GRABER: Look, I get it, sometimes you’re out at a cafe and they have awesome bread, and they put fun garnishes on it, and you want a piece of avocado toast. For Lauren, though, it’s come to mean something more.
OYLER: When I encounter avocado toast on a menu today, I always have this sort of like pain—this feeling of yearning because I at least still cannot justify ordering it in a restaurant though I see people doing it all the time. And I’m always like if only I were— like I feel like there’s—at some income level I will be frivolous enough to order an avocado toast in a restaurant. But still there’s like a barrier to me. It just seems so, like, luxurious.
TWILLEY: When you hear about Miley Cyrus having an avocado tattoo or avocado toast breaking Instagram and denying a whole generation home ownership, you think: we must be at peak avocado. But no.
GRABER: Because the future of avocados? It’s probably not in the US at all.
LARMER: In the year 2010, there were fewer than two tonnes of avocados imported into China. A small sedan could carry that many avocados. But since then it has become much more widespread mostly among young Millennials and the upper middle class but as a healthy fruit. And it’s known in China as the butter fruit, which seems to me like a perfect name for the avocado because that’s exactly what it feels like when you eat it—so buttery.
TWILLEY: So OK, in 2010, there was a car-load of butter fruit sold in the whole of China. That was the situation seven years ago.
LARMER: Last year, 32,000 tonnes were imported into China. And this is partly a marketing campaign and also partly kind of a young urban middle class kind of reaching for a global craze.
GRABER: Brook says Chinese entrepreneurs are building ripening rooms for avocados. They’re starting to talk about growing avocados in China. We’ve had our boom here in the U.S., and now that boom is moving on to other shores.
LARMER: Chinese have an unbelievable ability to adapt and incorporate new things into their cuisine. They are omnivores of the first order and also have a very, very widely diverse palate. And the avocado is a flavor carrier. In China, as in Southeast Asia, they’re also able to see it as a fruit. They don’t mind a fruit that looks like a vegetable or using it both for sweet and savory outcomes.
TWILLEY: In fact, Brook says that in the southernmost part of China, near the border of Myanmar, avocado is already popular. It’s used in salads with tomato and onion, like a kind of proto-guacamole. And it also goes into shakes, where it gets blended up with condensed milk, sometimes with powdered chocolate added for good measure.
GRABER: This is pretty common around the world—you find avocado ice cream and avocado shakes. It’s only starting to catch on here—we still seem to think of avocados mostly in savory dishes. But Brook says we can’t even imagine how big avocados are going to get in China. The avocado’s journey from Mesoamerican backyards to world domination still has a way to go.
LARMER: One of the guys that I quoted in the piece, this guy Steve Barnett who’s one of the biggest distributors in the world, dreams like every entrepreneur of introducing four chunks of avocado in every bowl of noodle soup in China.
TWILLEY: But wait, there’s more—what about the new pitless avocados? And avocado hand? And the trendy new variety that is supposed to be better than the Hass, and I want to plant in my back gardenz, but is impossible to get hold of, it’s so hot?
GRABER: Well, you can find out about all of that if you are one of Gastropod’s special supporters and get our special supporter newsletter! Every episode, it’s full of fun stuff we just couldn’t fit in. It’s $5 bucks per episode donation on Patreon, or $9 bucks a month support on our own website, gastropod.com/support.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Brook Larmer, freelance journalist, avocado fancier, and New York Times Magazine “On Money” columnist, and also to Lauren Oyler, freelance journalist and avocado toast aspirer.
GRABER: As well as to Mary Lu Arpaia and Eric Focht of UC Riverside and Luis Mario Tapio Vargas at the Mexican National Research institute for Forests and Agriculture. We have links to their articles and publications and websites on our website, gastropod.com