When you encounter an avocado today, you meet a superfood at the apogee of its culinary fame. The toast it rests upon in the wildly popular menu item of avocado toast may be nothing less than a throne. The avocado’s culinary status wasn’t always lofty. Just like movie stars improve on their names (Judy Garland was once Frances Ethel Gumm) the avocado didn’t always sound so great. It used to be called the Testicle Fruit.
Why that name? Because of the shape, and the texture of the skin, and the avocado’s rumored qualities as an aphrodisiac, Testicle Fruit it was. But no matter how smooth an operator an avocado can be, making it in America’s competitive culture with a name like Testicle Fruit was a non-starter.
Puebla, in South Central Mexico, is the motherland of the avocado where locals first enjoyed their buttery flesh nearly ten-thousand years ago. Mesoamerican tribes domesticated the avocado tree five-thousand years ago. That makes the domestication of the avocado older than the creation of the wheel, invented around 3500 B.C. Avocados were popular with the Incas. The Aztecs believed avocados bestowed strength. The Mayan calendar used an avocado as a glyph for the fourteenth month. The Mayans took that calendar seriously. They wouldn’t raise a fruit to the level of an icon just because. Tomb inscriptions in Chiapas, written in 650 A.D., show sacred ancestral figures rising from the earth and behind each one is a tree with fruits, among them an avocado.
The avocado was famous in the ancient world, yet there remains the matter of the unappealing name. How did the avocado break free of it? Actually, we call them avocados because of a screwup. The fifteenth-century navigator Martin Fernandez de Enciso brought avocados back from the New World to his home port of Seville, Spain. He wrote of the “marvelous” flavor of the fruit which tastes “like butter” and is “so good and pleasing to the palate.” He loved it but didn’t give it a name. By 1521, the fruit was on a world tour, cultivated widely, spreading through Central America, South America, and brought to Europe by the Conquistadors. The Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo also praised the avocado’s “good eating and good taste,” but also failed to name it. He thought it looked like a pear and incorrectly wrote that they were relatives of the pear trees that grew in Spain.
Pedro de Cieza de Leon, a Spanish conquistador, and chronicler of Peru, finally came up with a name. He called the fruit “aguacate,” an approximation, perhaps a mispronunciation, of the Nahuatl word ahuacati which means testicle. The English in the seventeenth century picked up the pear theme, calling the fruit an *avocado pear*. Some changed this to alligator pear because of the skin’s rough exterior. The name finally made it into print in 1696 when a naturalist named Sir Hans Sloane published a catalog of Jamaican plants. He described “the avocado or alligator pear-tree, which grows in gardens and fields throughout Jamaica.”
In the nineteen-hundreds, American growers, perhaps in a hurry, just went with avocado.
Avocado farms popped up in California, Florida, and Hawaii, but popularity did not follow. The appealing new name wasn’t enough, and avocados labored in obscurity as supporting players in “healthy” salads. It all may have ended there, with avocados served up among salad greens like a cover band borrowing fame, but it was worse than that because, in the Frozen Food Fifties, nothing could kill a food’s popularity like being healthy — just like an avocado. And it got worse still when fat became an evil word.
In the health-conscious sixties and seventies, fat was bad and eating it was worse, particularly in the avocado-friendly beach-body areas of California, Florida, and Hawaii. It was a bad time to be considered a fat bomb. In the eighties, avocados had their near death experience. No salad would be seen with them. It would take decades for popular nutrition knowledge to catch up with what avocados always offered. They were filled with good fat, not bad fat. They had unsaturated fat. It turned out they were the good guys.
Avocados today have the reputation of being a nutritious superfood, high in fiber, more potassium than bananas, rich in Vitamin E, lots of protein. Avocado oil is good for the skin. Research has suggested that avocados have anti-aging properties. There are more than 400 types of avocado on the world market. Avocado toast might come in as many varieties. The irony around this story of a rise to fame is that the avocado had everything it needed for success all along — the buttery texture, the nutrition — but being named Testicle fruit just wasn’t going to work.
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash