If a motion picture were produced on the history of the avocado, the film might have the dubious distinction of receiving an "R" rating for "mature audiences."
The opening scene might feature a group of actors dressed like Aztecs with one pointing to a tree and exclaiming, "ahuacuatl!"
Ahuacuatl is the Aztec word for testicle tree. No doubt, the name arose because of the way the fruit of the tree hung in pairs reminding those ancient people of human male anatomy. The film might also have a scene showing the young Aztec maidens confined indoors while this erotic fruit with aphrodisiac qualities was being harvested.
Over many centuries the avocado has maintained its reputation as an aphrodisiac. During the1920's a promotional advertising campaign was launched in the United States to deny that the avocado had aphrodisiac powers. The intent of the advertising agency was to convince people of the aphrodisiac quality by denying it. The campaign succeeded.
Fortunately, in today's world the avocado has overcome its controversial past and receives a "G" rating for all ages to enjoy.
The avocado or avocado pear, Persea Americana, is native to Mexico, Central America, and South America. The earliest record of its existence was an archaeological dig in Peru that uncovered avocado seeds buried with a mummy and dated back to the 8th Century BCE. One theory was that these early people wanted the seeds buried with them because their aphrodisiac qualities might be useful in the afterlife.
Our currently popular avocado recipe, guacamole, may have originated in the pre-Columbian era. The Aztec ahuaca-mulli, avocado sauce, was prepared by mashing avocados and sometimes adding tomatoes and onions and, perhaps, coriander.
The word avocado appears to resemble the term for lawyer in some languages. The French call their lawyer avocat and use the same word for the fruit; the Italians use avvocato for the attorney and avocado for the fruit; the Spanish say abogado for the legal expert and aguacate for the fruit. The Spanish word aguacate is derived from the Aztec ahuacuatl.
When Hernando Cortez conquered Mexico in 1519, he found that the avocado was a staple in the native diet. Fernandez de Oviedo, the historian accompanying the conquistadors, wrote this description 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." Since it reminded him of a dessert pear, he ate it with cheese. Other Spaniards preferred to season it with salt and pepper or to add sugar to it.
The Conquistadors discovered a unique use for the avocado seed. The seed yields a milky liquid that becomes red when exposed to air. The Spaniards found they could use this reddish brown or even blackish indelible liquid as ink to be used on documents. Some of these documents are still in existence today.
Bernabe Cobo, a Spanish padre, was the first to catalog the three major strains of avocados in 1653. The principal types were Mexican, West Indian, and Guatemalan. Included in these major categories are hundreds of varieties with different shapes, colors, and skin textures.
In his visit to Jamaica in 1672 W. Hughes, the royal physician, wrote that the avocado was "one of the most rare and pleasant fruits of the island. It nourisheth and strengtheneth the body." The English living in Jamaica called the avocado an "alligator pear." Some speculate that they were comparing the skin to that of an alligator. Others say alligator was a corruption of ahuacatl. In Jamaica today the people call the avocado a pear.
By 1751 travelers to the West Indies were tasting avocados grown there. One visitor, George Washington, described the "agovago pears" that were very popular in Barbados.
In the 1700's English seamen discovered that the avocado could be used as a spread to soften the hardtack they had for meals. The avocado spread soon became known as "midshipman's butter."
Judge Henry Perrine planted the first avocado tree in Florida in 1833, but the avocado was not destined to achieve popularity until the early 1900's. Another judge, R.B. Ord of Santa Barbara, brought the first trees to California in 1871.
In 1911 Carl Schmidt who worked for the West Indian Nursery in Altadena, California, was given the task of searching for a variety of Mexican avocado that would grow in California. His search led him to Puebla, Mexico, eighty miles from Mexico City. He took cuttings from a number of trees, but only one managed to survive the great freeze of 1913 in California. The surviving tree was given the name Fuerte, a variety that became the basis for the California avocado industry. Fuerte is the Spanish word for vigorous and strong.
California postman Rudolf Hass discovered the avocado that bears his name in 1926. His original tree is still growing in La Habra Heights, California. Little did he know that his name would be used for the most popular avocado in the world today.
The avocado tree is a member of the laurel family and is the only tree in the family to produce edible fruit. The three main strains are the Mexican, the West Indian and the Guatemalan. All have elliptical leaves that are glossy dark green with pale veins. The leaves remain on the tree for two to three years.
The Mexican variety bears purple or black fruit the size of a plum with a smooth skin and yellow-green flesh. The leaves of the Mexican avocado have an intense anise flavor, and dried, they are used to season black bean dishes. It is the hardiest of the avocado trees with its fruit harvested in the fall.
The Guatamalan avocados are either purple, black, or green with a rough skin and are larger than the Mexican ones. They are harvested in the spring or summer. The leaves have a medicinal use.
The West Indian type bears the largest fruit with some avocados weighing over 2 lbs. The skin is smooth and usually light green. The leaves have no scent.
The Hass and the Fuerte, the two most popular avocados in the market today, are hybrids of the Mexican and Guatemalan. Approximately 75% of the avocados sold in the United States are Hass. Fuerte is the second most popular of the seven varieties that are grown in California. The other California avocados are Bacon, Zutano, Gwen, Pinkerton, and Reed.
An evergreen tree, it sheds many leaves in early spring. It is a fast growing tree that can reach a height of 80 feet. The tree produces panicles or clusters of 200 to 300 small yellow-green blossoms. Each panicle will yield one to three avocados. Type A flowers are receptive to pollination in the morning and shed pollen the next afternoon. Type B flowers are receptive to pollination in the afternoon and shed pollen the following morning. A small percentage of the flowers are defective and sterile. The best crop occurs when there is cross-pollination between Type A and Type B.
Mexican avocados take about 6 to 8 months to reach maturity. Guatemalan varieties require 12 to 18 months. Fruit left on the tree will grow larger and usually will not ripen. Purple types are left on the tree until they reach full purple color. Commercial growers must allow the fruit to remain on the tree until it reaches 8% oil content.
The tiny cocktail avocado, one of many less common varieties, is quite slim, 2 to 2 1/2 inches in length, and is completely seedless. This variety can be found growing in Chile, South Africa, and Israel.
The oil of the avocado is extracted and bottled for use in gourmet cuisine.
Nutritionally the avocado leads all other fruits in beta carotene and even exceeds the banana in potassium. While other fruits gain sugar as they ripen, the avocado's sugar content decreases as it matures. It contains more protein, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, pantothenic acid, vitamin E, and vitamin K per ounce than any other fruit.
Proof of the avocado's wealth of nutrition shows up in the USDA Nutrient Database. Though the avocado is calorie dense, (one-half cup pureed flesh contains 204 calories), the benefits outweigh the concern over its total fat content of 19.9 grams. That same one-half cup of pureed avocado packs a protein content of 2.4 grams with 3.1 grams of fiber. Using that same quantity, the avocado contains only 8 grams of carbohydrates and a surprising 704 IU of vitamin A. It's rich in the B vitamins, especially niacin, scoring 2.20 mg., folic acid registering 75.4 mcg., calcium at 13 mg., iron at 1.36 mg., and a mountain of potassium showing 729 mg. Although it has numerous benefits, the avocado should be eaten in moderation because of its high fat content.
Glutathione is made up of three amino acids, glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine that function as antioxidants. Studies have revealed that avocados contain 17.7 mg of glutathione per 100 g of raw edible fruit. This is more than three times the amount in any other fruit. Studies have revealed a strong correlation between increased glutathione intake and decreased risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer. The decreased risk only occurred when the glutathione came from raw fruits and vegetables.
An article in the January 2001 issue of Prevention discusses the benefits of avocados for both skin and hair. Mashing an avocado and rubbing it into your hair for five minutes after washing will add luster to your hair. Avocado oil can be applied to the skin to relieve itchy, red, or irritated areas caused by eczema or dermatitis.
In South Africa, an avocado mask made of mashed avocados, honey, and lime juice is applied to the face as a moisturizing treatment to counteract the drying effects of the hot sun.
The leaves have a variety of uses. They have been chewed as a treatment for pyorrhea. They have been applied as poultices to wounds. Heated, they are placed on the forehead to relieve neuralgia. Leaf juices and concoctions have been employed as antibiotics, treatments for hypertension, diarrhea, sore throat, and to regulate menstruation. Juice concoctions have been used as digestive tonics, cough remedies, and abortifacients.
Seeds have been roasted and pulverized to create treatments for diarrhea and dysentery. Powdered, they have been utilized as a dandruff treatment. Pieces of seed have been placed in tooth cavities as a toothache palliative. An ointment made from the mashed seed has been used for women's makeup to redden their cheeks. Oil from the seed has been applied to skin eruptions.
Buying and Storing
Although the avocado matures on the tree, it does not begin to ripen until it is picked. The leaves of the tree supply a hormone to the fruit that inhibits the production of ethylene, the chemical responsible for ripening fruit. Avocados found in the markets will often be firm and unripe. They will require a few days at room temperature to ripen. Ripening can be hastened by placing the fruit in a brown paper bag with an apple and stored at room temperature.
In selecting the fruit, pick a heavy one with an unblemished, unbroken skin. Bring home a firm avocado and allow it to ripen naturally at room temperature, about three to five days. If you're looking for a ripe fruit to use immediately, squeeze gently. The fruit should respond to a gentle pressure, somewhat like a ripe peach. If you leave a dent, it is overripe and will have blackened flesh that is unusable.
Ripe avocados can be kept in the refrigerator for 4 or 5 days, but will begin to discolor and lose their flavor if kept longer. Unripe avocados should not be refrigerated because they will never ripen properly.
Avocado oil should be purchased in small quantities and not kept too long because it turns rancid quickly. However, stored in the refrigerator, it will keep for several months. Like other oils, it is high in fat and calories.
Avocados are very susceptible to oxidation, that is a tendency to turn brown when they come in contact with oxygen. After cutting or peeling, avocados will discolor if not used right away. Lemon or lime juice sprinkled on the fruit will slow the darkening process.
Avocado oil is richly flavored with nutty and fruity undertones. Use it raw only on salads when you want to add a special gourmet touch.
In the United States most avocados find their way into raw salads or guacamole. Frequently they are sliced and inserted into sandwiches. Mashed avocados are also used as spreads or dips.
Enjoy fresh avocado as a spread. It's superior to other spreads by providing fewer calories, saturated and total fat, cholesterol and sodium. One ounce of avocado offers 50 calories, 4.9 g of fat (including .7 g saturated), 0 cholesterol, and 3 mg of sodium. In calorie numbers, cream cheese and diet margarine have twice the calories as avocado with both registering approximately 100. Both also have more than twice as much fat, with cream cheese at 9.9 g and diet margarine 12.2 g. Diet margarine has no cholesterol but cream cheese totals 31 mg.
The differences are dramatic when avocado is compared to butter, mayonnaise, and regular margarine. These foods have four times the calories of avocado and clock in at over 200 for that same one ounce. They all have four times the fat with numbers ranging from 22 to 23 g. The avocado has only 3 mg. of sodium, but the others have quantities between 84 and 306 mg. Margarine tops the list with 306 while butter has 234 mg and diet margarine 223 mg.
Diced avocados make a beautiful garnish on practically everything from salads and soups to main dishes and sauces.
In some countries avocados become an ingredient in desserts. Brazilians put them into ice cream. Filipinos puree them with sugar and milk to make a dessert drink. The Taiwanese also eat them with milk and sugar.
Around the world people have found diverse uses for this fruit. Jamaicans create cold avocado soup. Nigerians stuff them with cheese, throw them into a batter, and bake them. Koreans blend them with milk to create a lotion for facial and body massages.
With avocados in abundance and prices reasonable, the season is ideal for a cooling raw soup. It can be prepared in just a few minutes and chilled a few hours ahead.