Long before Henry Perrine discovered avocado trees in Mexico and started the first groves in Miami in 1833, this strange and exotic fruit was a favorite of George Washington. Washington visited Barbados in 1751 and took a fancy to avocados, which were served to him in several dishes.
Primitive tribes in Mexico, Central America and northern South America were enjoying this delicious and healthful fruit thousands of years ago. Bowls in the shape of avocados have been found in Mayan, Toltec and Aztec temples.
Over the years the avocado has been called an alligator pear, custard apple, butter pear and vegetable pear. The name alligator pear originated from a specimen that has a rough skin similar to the hide of our Everglades beast of the swamps.
The first commercially produced avocados were the Fuerte, which means strong in Spanish. This variety was so named because it is capable of surviving freezes. David Fairchild (1869-1954) the eminent Florida botanist called the avocado “the veritable fruit of paradise.” Although botanically the avocado is a fruit, it distinguishes itself from other fruits in regard to its very low sugar content and acidity, and its high percentage of oil and protein.
The avocado is not only a beautiful and delicious fruit, but its invigorating and health-promoting qualities have long been recognized as a superlative source of vitamins and minerals. John H. Kellogg once stated, “Of all edible fruits, it stands pre-eminent as a source of concentrated nutriments.” Kellogg went on to praise the avocado for its purity, wholesomeness and ease of digestibility.
The avocado is native to the tropics and subtropics and its name “abuacatl,” is the Nuahtl (Aztec) word for “testicle,” which is assumed to be a reference to its shape and to its aphrodisiac properties. Florida was the site of the first avocado trees in the 1830s and was known early on as an alligator pear. It is a first cousin of the bay leaf and cinnamon tree, belonging to the laurel family and is subsumed under the botanical name “Persea Americana.”
The legend regarding the arrival of avocados in the United States maintains that the Spanish padres regularly sat under the avocado trees in Mexico. They picked the ripe fruit, ate them and tossed the seeds in various directions. These traveling holy fathers journeyed to the north, eating the fruit and leaving seeds along the way, which resulted in the vast orchards of avocados.
Cultivation of avocados in Spain has become an important agricultural product. Although it was Hernando Cortes who discovered the avocado around Mexico City in 1519, it has taken centuries for the fruit to be widely accepted in Iberia. This native American fruit is widely acclaimed in France and Germany. The French prefer the small but flavorful Hass, while the Germans prefer the heartier Fuerte.
The queen, or should we say the empress, of all avocado dishes is guacamole. This glorious dip originated in Mexico, and there are literally thousands of variations. The best guacamole I ever indulged in was at Rosa Mexicana, a popular restaurant on New York City’s east side. An order of guacamole results in a tableside spectacle that rivals the preparation of Steak Diane, Cherries Jubilee or other flaming dishes prepared tableside. The guacamole is prepared at your table, and one may direct the waitperson about the amount of garlic, hot pepper sauce and other ingredients. The one prerequisite is that the avocado is not pulverized into a smooth texture. Rather, there are lumps of the avocado that meld with the tangy ingredients and add volume and contrast to the tasty concoction.
Here is the traditional version of guacamole. I leave it up to you to decide whether you want to add more garlic, leave out the tomato, add cream cheese or jazz this dish up in any way you see proper that enhances the gastronomic experience.
1 clove garlic, split
1 small tomato (optional)
2 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 medium-sized soft, ripe avocado
1 small hot chili pepper or several drops Tabasco or other hot sauce
1 tablespoon lime or lemon juice
Salt to taste
1 Rub a bowl with garlic.
2 Peel and chop tomato finely, discarding seeds, if you like.
3 Peel and seed avocado and mash to a smooth paste with a fork or wooden spoon in the bowl rubbed with garlic.
4 Add tomato, onion, chili pepper or pepper sauce, lime juice and salt to taste. If a thinner dip is desired, thin with a little more lime juice or cream.
5 Serve as a dip with corn chips, quartered and toasted tortillas, crisp raw vegetables or shrimp. Makes 11/2 cups.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet Was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” Contact Doris Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.