The United States of Avocado

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My infant is six months old, the age when US-based pediatricians, nutritionists, and social media influencers unanimously say that babies should begin eating solid food. How they should be eating is a more divisive topic. Are you in the baby-led weaning camp, the old-is-new method of letting children pick up pieces of solid foods to bring to their mouth on their own? Or do you purée, preferring the peace of mind of fewer airway obstructions? Just a couple of decades ago, spoon-feeding powdered rice cereal was deemed by heath care experts to be the best way to introduce foods other than breast milk or formula. Today, whether mashed or cut into tiny fist-length spears, avocados are increasingly recommended as not just one of the first but THE first solid food for babies, by everyone from books to apps to social media influencers. The fruit’s status as a food that is mild in flavor, rich in nutrition, and not a common allergen has recently made it a quintessential kids’ food across the United States, ensuring new generations of avocado eaters for years to come.

Avocados, also known as avocado pears, are native to Central America, where they are a staple of the cuisine. They grow from evergreen trees that can reach heights of 80 feet and provide shade below with their thick, flat leaves. Most of the world’s avocados today are grown in Mexico, a market worth an estimated $2.84 billion. According to the US Department of Agriculture, consumption of avocados in the United States has tripled since 2001, climbing to more than eight pounds per person each year. The avocado has become firmly embedded in American institutions like the Super Bowl and the club sandwich—as well as in the cuisines of places as far-flung from Mexico as Japan (think maki rolls) and Australia (as in the infamous avocado toast). The rise of avocados from a delicacy to an everyman’s lunch on toast has launched cottage industries in home delivery that specialize in offering perfectly ripe fruit, or unique varietals grown throughout the year.

To understand America’s current ecstasy over avocado, we first need to dig into our former fear of fat. The 1990s was an era of fatphobia, goaded by soda-giant-funded studies intended to distract from the health risks of sugar. That decade ushered in a number of fat-free products, from cookies and American cheese in grocery aisles, to nonfat frozen yogurt in strip mall shops and low-fat milk in school cafeterias. Fat, the conventional wisdom went, made people fat.

“We had it backward for so long, everything needing to be fat-free, and people just got more sick,” says Stephanie Middleberg, a registered dietitian and best-selling author. “We’ve learned so much more that our diets should be rich in fat.”

To understand America’s current ecstasy over avocado, we first need to dig into our former fear of fat.

Avocados are a great source of monounsaturated fats, she says, which is important for brain health, absorption of vitamins, digestion, and even helping control blood glucose. So although Middleberg had never eaten an avocado until she was in her twenties, a decade later she chose avocado puree—thinned with breast milk—as the first solid food she fed her five-month-old son, Julian. It’s the first recipe that appears in her cookbook, The Big Book of Organic Baby Food, which was published in 2016 and has since sold 450,000 copies.

“To this day [avocado is] one of Julian’s favorite foods. We even make ice pops with avocado and banana,” says Middleberg in a recent phone call. And the fatty fruit is just as indispensable to her diet, whether mashed on toast or seedy crackers with a dabble of olive oil, sea salt, and hemp hearts or scooped from its skin and placed atop salads.

When Pati Jinich, the chef and award-winning host of the TV show Pati’s Mexican Table, was raising her firstborn in Texas after emigrating from Mexico City, she felt that she had to heed her pediatrician’s advice of feeding her child rice cereal, early and often. But she also fed her kids many of the same foods that she ate, including avocados. “I remember feeling completely overwhelmed,” Jinich recalls of starting her infant on solid foods. “Avocados are very nutritious, and it’s very easy for babies because you just mash it, you don’t have to cook it.”

Jinich points out that avocados are a staple ingredient for people of all walks of life throughout her native Mexico—and they’re just as varied, too, from small, fist-size criollos to the elongated El Fuerte variety. Jinich prefers Hass avocados from Mexico for their rich and creamy flavor, and she and her family go through 10 to 12 per week. She’ll go shopping on the weekend, buying fruits of varying ripeness, and allow them to ripen on the counter, eating one after another as they became soft. “We’ll do a choo-choo train,” she says of the process.

Not everyone has found this to be easy, nor accessible. Lesley Téllez, the Mexican American cookbook author of Eat Mexico, finds that shopping for avocados in the United States can be frustrating.

“I have found avocados to be expensive in the States, and the quality—particularly of Hass avocados—varies wildly,” says Téllez. Sometimes she’d buy avocados that appeared to be ripe, but they would taste awful. Sometimes half-ripe avocados never ripened on the counter at her home in New York.

This was the mid-2010s, and she’d read that avocados were great for kids. So she fed both her children avocado as their first food. Although she liked the idea of giving her children avocados because it was related to her heritage—both as a Mexican American and having grown up in Southern California—the reality was disappointing. “Looking back now, I hate that books were telling me to buy an expensive food and feed that to my child,” she says.

Peter Romero, who grew up accustomed to eating avocados grown on his family’s Southern California grove, Primavera, can relate to the hit-or-miss quality of grocery-store-bought avocados. While working across the country in New York City in media ad sales (including for Penguin Random House, which publishes TASTE), he stopped buying avocados altogether because he found them to be so subpar and so expensive.

His father, Paul, had been in the avocado business since 1979, when he graduated from college with a degree in crop science and, on the suggestion of a professor, got into the burgeoning avocado industry. As a second-generation Mexican American, he enjoyed eating them, and soon he began growing them on the side while working for the distributor Calavo Growers.

“I always joke that my dad was the OG avocado toast guy, because he would put it on white sandwich bread… as a child, I thought that was very strange,” Romero recalls.

A few years ago, Romero got the idea to launch a direct-to-consumer website for his family’s grove, based in Ventura, California. After getting laid off from a job, he went to work on it seriously, and he launched Primavera’s consumer website last May. Through it, customers nationwide can order a box of four pounds of avocados from their groves for $39 or sign up for a subscription plan. Each box comes with a helpful guide to ripening the fruit at home, which will typically take a few days (to speed things up, it suggests placing avocados in a paper bag with a banana). Have a few that are about to become ripe but you’re not ready to eat them? Refrigerate them for two to three days to slow the process down.

“I always joke that my dad was the OG avocado toast guy, because he would put it on white sandwich bread.”

Over the course of the website’s first year, Romero says its subscribers have grown steadily, despite spending little money on marketing. His customer base has also shifted toward the East Coast, where people don’t have access to great avocados from the farmers’ market like they do on the West Coast.

Restaurants have also struggled with consistent quality when it comes to avocados. While working in retail banking, Miguel Gonzalez saw an opportunity to start his own business.

“Avocados come from my native region of Michoacán,” he says, referring to the Mexican state that produces the majority of the country’s export crop. “I started ordering a few cases from friends of mine, and it grew from there.”

His business, Davocadoguy, has grown from a boutique avocado ripening service for chefs in 2014—you might call him the avocado whisperer—to a nationwide e-commerce business that ships avocados directly to both restaurants and people’s homes nationwide. The draw is perfectly ripe avocados for any purpose.

“A sushi chef will need a semi-ripe avocado that will hold itself when plated… a café serving avocado toast might need a softer, more mashable, more buttery type of fruit,” he says. “It took countless hours and a lot of trial and error to fine-tune the quality of the avocado for daily deliveries.”

Gonzales primarily focused on serving restaurant clients until 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered many businesses; however, he then saw an uptick in orders from individual homes, which had previously been a small part of his business. Today customers can choose between ripe, semi-ripe, and green avocados as well as between a subscription plan and onetime purchases through his website.

Cutting out the middleman and shipping avocados directly from the grove to the consumer may sound like a post-pandemic-era brainchild. But it’s been in practice since the early 2010s at Avocado Monthly, the e-commerce website for Emerald Hills Farm (previously known as Foster Rainbow Ranch), a 14-acre avocado farm in Fallbrook, California. Last year, Rekha Patel bought the organic avocado grove from Bob Foster, who was retiring from his family farm of three generations. Today the farm grows 16 varieties of avocados throughout the year, from the light-green-skinned and fresh-tasting Zutano to the large, nutty-tasting Lamb Hass.

There’s another advantage to shipping avocados across the country, even though they may arrive green and hard as rocks: Patel says that when she buys avocados at the grocery store, they’re just not the same because they haven’t been ripened properly. Avocados don’t ripen on the tree, so they require several days to ripen after being picked. But Patel thinks that a lot of avocados nowadays are picked a month or so in advance in Mexico and are refrigerated before they become ripe, compromising the flavor and texture of the fruit once they are left out to ripen in a store.

“It’s completely different when you refrigerate an unripe fruit,” says Patel. “They’re mealy or watery because they’re picked so early and didn’t have time for that fat content to develop.” When you allow them to ripen straight from the tree, however, skipping a long chill, she thinks they’re creamier and more flavorful. “It just tastes so much more fresh, and you can actually taste the differences among the varieties,” says Patel.

That’s the purpose of Avocado Monthly, where shoppers can purchase stand-alone bundles or sign up for an avocado subscription that will allow them to taste distinctive varieties such as Fuerte, Wurtz, and Pinkerton throughout the year. Some avocados are bigger or smaller, and some have greener flesh while others are more yellow. Currently Patel is excited about the GEM avocado, a newer variety that is rich in flavor and similar to Hass but more heat- and drought-resistant, at least on her farm. Those features may come in handy in the future, as avocados are a notoriously water-intensive crop and as climate change continues to plague California with longer and greater droughts. Yet rising temperatures may even rewrite the growing regions for avocados, along with other crops that many Americans can’t imagine living without, like coffee, grapes, cacao, and nuts.

Another major concern around avocados today that has been covered extensively in the media is the involvement of organized crime in the Mexican avocado industry, which has led for calls to curb imports from community groups and even from the US ambassador to Mexico. Some point to these issues as all the more reason to diversify avocado varietals and where they are grown.

Now that avocados have truly become a global sensation—graduating from merely trendy to become perhaps a staple ingredient in the United States in the coming years—we have yet to see how, where, and what kinds of avocados will feed our growing appetites. “I see the rise of avocados in the United States as a success story of how ingredients from one culture can enrich another,” says Jinich. “But, of course, everything has to be in balance and well regulated.”





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