Dear Readers, if there is a more frustrating fruit on the face of the earth than the avocado I have yet to meet it (though the peach runs it pretty close). How can it go from rock hard to rotten without any intervening period of ripeness? Even the gentlest cupping to check for softness leads to a horrible brown bruise. It doesn’t help that I can’t abide the things if they’re the texture of rubber or reduced to mush either. And yes, I know I’m difficult to please.
One avocado-based activity that is fun, though, is how easy the stones are to turn into a rather attractive house plant. I can’t be the only one who has balanced the seed on some toothpicks above a jar of water and watched as the leaves bust out of the top.
I have, of course, never persuaded the plant to produce any more baby avocados, but then what’s the point? They’ll only disappoint me yet again.
The avocado plant comes originally from Mexico, and is a member of the Lauraceae or laurel family (not really a surprise when you look at those leaves). The fruit is technically a large berry, and it has the handy attribute, as we know, of ripening after picking. The ‘ready to eat’ avocados that you see in the shops have been exposed to ethylene in a ‘ripening room’ – ethylene is produced most noticeably by bananas, and light dawns as I begin to see that my poor avocados have probably been being stored too close to my fruit bowl, which would explain a lot.
All of today’s avocados come from the criollo, the ancestral form of the avocado. This was being cultivated as long ago as 5000 BCE, and eaten from the wild tree long before this: an avocado pit was discovered in the Coxcatlan Caves of Tehuácan in Mexico that dated to about 10,000 years ago. And small wonder that our ancestors enjoyed it: it has lots of Vitamin K and Vitamin C, and is a source of both saturated and unsaturated fats.
The avocado goes back much further than 10,000 BCE however. Like many fruits with large stones, it is believed to have evolved with the megafauna of the Pleistocene, who would have eaten the avocado whole and then deposited the stone, with a handy heap of dung, some distance away. Possible candidates for this dispersal process would be the giant ground sloth or megatherium, and the gomphotheres, a group of ancient elephants. Strangely enough, the skin and flesh of avocados is harmful to most domestic animals, and some humans are also allergic to it.
Now, no current animals in Central America are big enough to disperse avocados, and indeed their propagation can be something of a problem. The tree takes a long time to mature, and commercial growers depend on grafting to get the fruit to ‘come true’. Furthermore, the plant will sometimes produce tiny seedless avocados called ‘cucks’ – you might think that the growers would be delighted, but sadly the size of the fruit makes them nothing to get excited about, although some enterprising farmers do sell them as ‘cocktail avocados’. Some varieties, such as the ever-popular Hass, don’t crop regularly every year, with a bumper year followed by a ‘meh’ year (technical phrase).
Now, although I can never find an avocado at the perfect pitch of ripeness, there is no denying that an avocado can be a thing of absolute beauty. And goodness, is it a versatile ingredient! Of course there’s the standard avocado on toast, though I always think that a warm egg on top of cold avocado is a bit of a strange thing. But guacamole? Now you’re talking. And I’m increasingly seeing avocado being used in vegan cooking, wherever you need something fatty and unctuous.
And how about an Indonesian avocado ‘milk’ shake with chocolate syrup? I think the jury’s out on this one as far as I’m concerned.
Incidentally, I have seen (and even on one occasion made) recipes that include baked avocados, but in my experience the heat turns them bitter. Any thoughts, readers?
And I rather like the sound of this Ethiopian drink – ‘It is also common to serve layered multiple fruit juices in a glass (locally called Spris) made of avocados, mangoes, bananas, guavas, and papayas‘.
Now readers, you would not want me to leave the subject of avocados without sharing a little of the folklore around them. They have something of a reputation as an aphrodisiac, probably because their shape could put one in mind of a testicle if one was that way inclined. But the piece de resistance is this wonderful tale from Guiana, recounted on Richard Niesenbaum’s blog. It’s one of those stories that just keeps getting worse and worse. See what you think.
According to Aztec legend, a man named Seriokai living in Guiana, a country in South America, loved avocados and usually spent the day gathering them. One day while he was out, a tapir wandered into his camp and made Seriokai’s wife fall in love with it. The next day, Seriokai and his wife went out to collect avocados. As he climbed down one tree, his wife hit him over the head, causing him to fall and sever his leg. She ran away with the tapir and the basket of avocados. A neighbor found Seriokai and helped him heal, replacing his leg with a wooden stump. Seriokai then followed the trail of growing avocado trees that had grown as they fell out of his wife’s basket. He found the runaway couple at the end of the world, and shot the tapir in the eye. The tapir leaped off the edge from the pain, and Seriokai’s wife followed her love and jumped as well. Seriokai also jumped off, and the three are said to have turned into Orion (Seriokai), Pleiades (the wife) and Hyades (the tapir with a bleeding eye) in the sky (Neal 2017).
So there you go. And here is a tapir, just in case you’ve never seen one. Not an obvious love object, but people can be very idiosyncratic.
And finally, a poem. This makes me happy/sad – I have two colleagues who are just off on their maternity leave and I am both envious of them and resigned. Sometimes, the things that we hope for in life just don’t work out, and not managing to have children will be something that makes me a little melancholy for the rest of my days, I suspect. Still, there are plenty of children and animals who need love, so I will never be short of somewhere to put all that sweetness.
Eating the Avocado
Now I know that I’ve never described
anything, not one single thing, not
the flesh of the avocado which darkens
so quickly, though if you scrape
what’s been exposed to the air it’s new-green
beneath like nothing ever happened.
I want to describe this evening, though
it’s not spectacular. The baby babbling
in the other room over the din
and whistle of a football game, and now
the dog just outside the door, scratching,
rattling the tags on her collar, the car
going by, far away but loud, a car without
a muffler, and the sound of the baby
returning again, pleasure and weight.
I want to describe the baby. I want to describe
the baby for many hours to anyone
who wishes to hear me. My feelings for her
take me so far inside myself I can see the pure
holiness in motherhood, and it makes me
burn with success and fear, the hole her
coming has left open, widening. Last night
we fed her some of the avocado I’ve just
finished eating while writing this poem.
Her first food. I thought my heart might burst,
knowing she would no longer be made
entirely of me, flesh of my flesh. Startled
in her amusing way by the idea of eating,
she tried to take it in, but her mouth
pushed it out. And my heart did burst.