Avocados among other New World natives, chilies and tomatoes

I am always delighted when I find things in nature that deviate from the expected, such as the braided rings around Saturn, monotremes (the platypus and echidna: both mammals that lay eggs), or the fact that bees are not “properly designed” for flight (though that doesn’t slow them down). The plant kingdom, in particular, seems to be replete with “rule-breakers”—plants that are hard to define, difficult to predict, or that exhibit characteristics that differ from everything else in the category to which they belong.

One of these exceptional plants is the avocado. Fruit pretty universally produces sugars to some degree as part of the ripening process, but avocados produce oil instead. (They do produce some sugar while still on the tree, but sugar rapidly decreases once ripening begins.) Avocados also have the highest protein content of any fruit.

While other fruit ripens best, and often ripens only, while still on the plant, avocados do not begin to ripen until they are cut off the tree. The tree produces a hormone that keeps the fruit from ripening, and it is only when this hormone ceases to reach the fruit that ripening begins. Avocados can, in fact, be “stored” for months simply by leaving them on the tree.

Avocado is the only fruit that cannot ripen anaerobically—if you keep it in a tightly wrapped plastic bag (like the one in which you brought it home from the grocery store), ripening stops. The fruit simply spoils when oxygen is reintroduced after having been denied for any significant amount of time.

Avocados are native to the tropical Americas, from Mexico down to the top of South America. Archaeological evidence suggests that avocadoes were being cultivated in this region around 7,000 years ago.

Those Europeans lucky enough to encounter the avocado, once they began sampling the foods of the New World, pretty much all liked the fruit right away, though they weren’t always certain what to do with it. Some sprinkled it with sugar, and others, with salt and pepper. (In actual fact, the avocado can go either way, and I’ve had amazing avocado ice cream—it’s rich enough to replace some of the eggs when making ice cream.)

The first writing we have about the avocado came from Spanish explorers, journalists, botanists, and Conquistadors. Among the earliest to describe avocados, navigator and historian Fernández de Oviedo wrote in 1526, “In the center 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 is a paste similar to butter and of very good taste.”

In 1672, W. Hughes, physician to King Charles II of England, enjoyed avocado during a visit to Jamaica and later wrote that it was “One of the most rare and pleasant fruits of the island. It nourisheth and strengtheneth the body…” As so often seemed to be the case with foods of the New World, his report also suggested its potential as an aphrodisiac.

Surprisingly, with such glowing reports and hedonistic possibilities, the avocado was slow to take off. Of course, it needed somewhere warm to grow, so Europe wasn’t going to be raising it. The avocado remained for a long time something to be enjoyed if you visited its home turf. Sailors with access to ports in the Americas enjoyed it spread on hardtack. Butter was often scarce at sea, and by the 1700s, some called avocado “midshipman’s butter.”

When Charles Delmonico introduced “alligator pears” to upscale New Yorkers at Delmonico’s Restaurant in 1895, he had imported them from South America. U.S. growers were barely getting started at that point, and ships made South America an easier choice than California, which was where the only commercial growing was going on in 1895.

Actually, the first avocado tree in Florida was planted in 1833 by Judge Henry Perrine, but it was a novelty. Then in 1856, Thomas White was growing avocados in Los Angeles. However, it wasn’t until 1870 that commercial cultivation got going in California, and not until about 1900 that it started in Florida. So it took time, but avocados did catch on, and then spread to other tropical climes.

Avocados are members of the laurel family of trees. There are three original types of avocados: the Mexican type, the Guatemalan type, and the West Indian type. All varieties we eat today are related to or hybridized from these three. For example, the Hass, which is the variety most commonly grown in California, is a Mexican/Guatemalan hybrid.

Our word avocado is a modification of the Spanish aguacate, which comes from Nahautl ahuscatl or ahuacatl. The Spanish word was first used in 1550 by Pedro de Cieza Leon, a Conquistador and historian. (Also related is our word for that nifty avocado dip, descendant of a spicy Nahuatl sauce that the Spanish first called aguacamole, from the Nahuatl for avocado plus molli, Nahuatl for sauce, which morphed into mole in Spanish–hence guacamole simply means “avocado sauce.”)

In addition to being luxuriantly rich and delicious, avocados are wonderfully good for you. With 17 vitamins and minerals in all, they contain more potassium than bananas and also carry a substantial load of antioxidants. While they have a surprisingly high oil content, the oil is monounsaturated, which means it boosts your HDLs (the good cholesterol) and lowers your LDLs (the bad stuff). So eating avocados actually reduces your risk of heart disease. So now you have more and better reasons to eat avocados than just their great taste and luxurious texture!

Copyright ©2011 Cynthia Clampitt



Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Geography, Health, History, Language, Nutrition

4 responses to “Avocado

  1. Avocado with sugar! That’s something I definitely haven’t come across before. I will make it a point to try it sometime… and avocado ice cream… mmmmm!

  2. Avocados are known to be the greatest superfood in the world. It is composed with the best nutritional sources; high in fiber, potassium, folate, vitamine E, and magnesium.

    • I think there are a few other foods that are as good as avocado, as far as health goes, but it is definitely among the best choices. I mention most of the health benefits in the article, but it’s always nice to know someone else is a fan. They are definitely among those foods that Jean Carper calls “miracle medicine,” so they’re a good thing to add to one’s diet.

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