The longer you think about the avocado, the stranger it becomes. What is it, exactly, and how did we become so accustomed to its buttery moon-face mashed up into everything from dip to ice cream? The Oxford Companion to Food begins its definition of avocado as “Persea americana, a fruit unlike any other.” Almost as if the dictionary writer could find no better words of description.
Visually, it’s a puzzle: the exterior as lumpy and black as a dinosaur egg, with an inner chamber of pale green grading towards yellow. Its pit is like polished wood, or as Fernandez de Oviedo described in 1526, “like a peeled chestnut,” resting in a hollow more perfect than any spoon could scoop out.
Before we go any further, let me discuss the real reason why I so recently became interested in avocados. Do you ever find yourself thinking about words? “Avocado” is a rather beautiful word — the regularly spaced consonants and internal assonance give it a vague symmetry — and I began wondering where the name comes from. The Jamaicans call it alligator pear, English sailors called it “midshipman’s butter,” but in which language is such a pleasant name found indigenously? As it turns, out, avocado is a derivative of ahuacatl, which happens to be the Aztec word for testicle. The avocado grows in pairs, dangling from the tree so suggestively that even the Aztecs noticed, pausing long enough from their daily blood sacrifice to chuckle to themselves and bestow the avocado with its legacy. With that in mind, the Oxford’s definition “a fruit unlike any other” develops an entirely new meaning.
In the seventeenth century, W. Hughes, physician to King Charles II of England wrote home from Jamaica about the avocado, “It nourisheth and strengtheneth the body, corroborating the spirits and procuring lust exceedingly.” In the puritan colonies, to eat an avocado in public was to be labeled as a slut. Naturally, when American farmers in the early 1900s were looking to boost their avocado sales, they decided upon an ad campaign specifically denying its aphrodisiac qualities.
These days, the avocado is hardly provocative. In my mind it conjures up Mad Men era housewives and jello molds: tidy cold slices fanned atop iceberg lettuce like a slimy flower. I wanted to liberate the avocado, find a recipe to showcase the fruit in all its delicate, voluptuous glory. Milkshakes seemed like the way to go.