Modern Life: What Is Avo? Richard Godwin
In his Summa de Geografía of 1519, the Spanish conquistador Martín Fernández de Enciso described the many strange things he had encountered while romping around the Americas.
One yellowish specimen took his fancy. ‘That which it contains is like butter and is of marvellous flavour, so good and pleasing to the palate that it is a marvellous thing.’
The explorer had chanced upon the fruit known to the Aztecs as the ahuacatl; to later generations as the ‘alligator pear’, and to 21st century orthorexics as the avocado – or ‘avo’ for short. Perhaps we should have stuck with the Aztec name. Ahuacatl roughly translates as ‘bollock’. It was so named because the fruits dangle from the tree in pairs.
The buttery bollock fruit was soon shipped back to Europe, along with other Mesoamerican exoticisms such as tomatoes, potatoes and chocolate. It seemed a fair deal. We gave them smallpox; they gave us the staples of modern cuisine. While avocado enjoyed a minor vogue as a 1970s bathroom shade, it wouldn’t achieve its full socio-cultural potential until the mid-2010s. Today, it is no mere fruit but an institution, an ideology and shorthand for a generation.
The key innovation seems to have been the placement of the avocado upon a piece of toast. No one is sure who thought of this. But the person who popularised it was Californian actress-turned-lifestyle blogger, Gwyneth Paltrow.
In her 2013 almanac, It’s All Good, she presented her readers with a ‘lifechanging’ recipe. Basically, you place some bread in a toaster, spread it with *trigger warning* vegan mayonnaise, and bung on some avocado plus a few seasonings: salt, pepper, lemon juice, chilli flakes. Paltrow described the combination as like a ‘favorite [sic] pair of jeans — so reliable and easy and always just what you want’. If you dispense with the vegannaise, perhaps.
The idea spread in tandem with a new form of technology – in this case, the photo-sharing social media platform, Instagram. #Avocado, #avocadotoast and #avotoast rapidly became one of the most photographed foodstuffs on the site (more than 6.5 million images) and certainly the most iconic.
Why? Well, the pale greens and pastel yellows sure look pretty. The avocado communicates virtue: it’s vegan, high in protein and omega-3s, good for skin, digestion and all that. It’s versatile.
A child could prepare it. And supermarkets have finally nailed the ‘Ripe and Ready’ version, which saves a lot of avo-angst.
All of this has led to a backlash. Prices have reached record highs: 530 Mexican pesos (£21.80) for a 10kg box! Avocados are blamed for the Californian drought: did you know it takes 100 litres of water to grow a single avocado? Avocados are emblematic of the much maligned “clean eating” movement, that has led to some really bad recipes involving vegannaise.
The British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons has warned of a rise in ‘avocado hand’ – a stabbing injury caused when trying to remove the stone. And avocado is, of course, the crucial factor in the depression of wages, spiralling house prices and generational injustice.
Back in March, an Australian luxury property developer, Tim Gurner, claimed that ‘Millennials’ (a disparaging term for young people) would easily be able to afford houses if they could only stop ramming bollock fruit brunches into their whiny, entitled gobs.
In the avocado’s defence, it isn’t the most photographed food on Instagram; that’s pizza. While avocados do require lots of water, it’s minuscule compared to that needed for meat farming. Yougov found that only six per cent of Americans under thirty had ever bought avocado on toast in a restaurant. Anyway, an imaginary Millennial buying an imaginary £6 avo toast every day of her life would have to forego it for twentyfour years to save a 10 per cent deposit on the average London flat.
It would perhaps have been much better had Christopher Columbus simply stayed put.