This is the avocado.
I first encountered one some time in the 1990s in its guacamole form. I didn’t actually know what an avocado looked like until some years later. I grew up in the state of Minnesota. And if you know anything about the climate of Minnesota, you can be certain there are no avocados growing anywhere near its ten thousand lakes. But in the 1990s, they started appearing. Mostly in their guacamole form but their presence in the produce section of my local grocery store was on the rise.
Flash forward a couple decades and avocados can be found pretty much everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, an Australian millionaire blamed avocado toast for low home sales among Millennials. That’s a ridiculous statement in and of itself but when you take into account that nearly all of the world’s avocados are grown in Mexico, the fact that someone on the other side of the planet can use an avocado as a dig against an entire generation of people shows just how much of a worldwide phenomenon this weird-looking fruit has become.
But in reality, a lot of people loves avocados. They’re not a luxury item only hip Millennials eat. They are quickly becoming commonplace.
But it wasn’t always like that. For a long time, avocados were an obscure product of Mexico and South America. In the United States they were grown in small parts of California and Florida but that’s about it.
So what happened that made this rather ugly fruit so popular?
Well, the Super Bowl happened.
But first, let’s talk about prehistoric megafauna.
The original customer base for the avocado wasn’t Millennials or even Mexican restaurants. It was an armadillo the size of a VW bug and a sloth as large as an African Elephant. These giant prehistoric mammals, along with a variety of other megafauna, roamed South America during the Pleistocene hundreds of thousands of years ago. The avocado evolved in conjunction with these animal’s eating habits. It’s why they have such large seeds. These megafauna were capable of swallowing an avocado whole. The seed would then pass through the animal’s massive digestive system intact, and be deposited on the ground, encased in a packet of its own fertilizer.
Suffice it to say, it was great time to be an avocado. But about ten thousand years ago, all the megafauna went extinct. After that, no surviving species had a large enough gullet to eat the avocados’ seeds whole. The plant is even toxic to a large number of present day animals.
But not humans.
Evidence of avocado cultivation goes back thousands of years. The first known written account of an avocado was by a Spanish Conquistador in the 16th century. But the avocado didn’t make it across the US-Mexico border until the mid-19th century. And it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century when some enterprising California farmers finally tried to capitalize on this weird-looking fruit.
First of all, these avocado farmers had an uphill battle to fight. The avocado was not only weird-looking but it had a weird, unappetizing name. Back then, it was called the “Alligator Pear.” Probably because the skin of an avocado bears a superficial resemblance to the skin of a large, carnivorous, swamp-dwelling reptile. Not the most appealing imagery to have a potential customer base associate to conjure up while eating your food product. These farmers might as well have been trying to sell alien eggs for consumption — as far as the public was concerned. So these California farmers banded together to give the avocado’s image a facelift. First off, they needed to change its name. Alligator Pear just wasn’t gonna cut it with the focus groups. So they re-branded it as the “avocado.”
(Which incidentally is derived from this word : āhuacatl — which basically means testicle fruit. It was a different language so nobody cared.)
But that didn’t mean avocado sales suddenly took off. It was still a foreign fruit unfamiliar to most Americans. People didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t sweet. You couldn’t really cook with it. It remained green even when it was ripe. And it could only be grown in certain areas of the country.
So the avocado was relegated to a luxury item — something akin to lobster or caviar. Only hip rich Californians and Floridians could shell out the cash for a prized avocado. It would stay that way for a long time — partly because that was how it was marketed.
But the low fat diet craze of the 1980s would sideline the avocado even further.
Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fat. Today we call this kind of fat “good fat.” But in the 1980s, we didn’t discriminate. All fat was bad. If you wanted to be skinny and beautiful and have a long flowing mullet and wear big shoulder pads, you didn’t dare eat an avocado. Even doctors were discouraging the consumption of avocados.
The avocado industry fought back. They formed their own nutritional task force to combat the anti-avocado movement but it would take years of research and education to teach the general public the difference between good and bad fats. All the while, most of the American public still didn’t really know what an avocado was — much less the health benefits of eating one.
But at the close of the 1980s the avocado would finally catch a break — thanks to the Super Bowl. Even though the Super Bowl had been around for over 20 years by this time, the Super Bowl party was a rather new addition to this hallowed American past time. And no American get-together was complete without an ungodly amount of snacks. Even in the health conscious 80s, the Super Bowl party was an event where nobody worried about calories or fat intake or eating healthy in any way whatsoever. The avocado industry understood this implicitly. While they didn’t think they were going to sneak whole avocados into America’s living rooms, they did have one secret weapon:
Guacamole was already a pretty well-known dip at this point — a common sight at many a social gathering — not just Super Bowl parties. But the timing of the Super Bowl gave avocados a distinct advantage. Most avocados ripen in January. The Super Bowl is the first Sunday in February. Millions of people are gonna need guacamole for their Super Bowl party. Guacamole is made of avocados — which incidentally just came into season. The timing couldn’t have been better. This was the opportunity the avocado had been waiting nearly a century for.
It just needed the help of some savvy PR.
In 1992, the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton orchestrated the “Guacamole Bowl.” This particular PR team had been toiling to bring the avocado to the American dinner table for years now. It was a seemingly impossible challenge. They had created a mascot called “The Mr. Ripe Guy” to spread the good word about avocados and raise awareness among the American public. Hill & Knowlton worked ceaselessly, slowly inculcating the avocado into the American imagination, until they finally hit the jackpot with the “Guacamole Bowl.”
During the 1992 Super Bowl, Hill & Knowlton recruited members of both super bowl teams to share their favorite guacamole recipes. Then the public could vote on their favorite one. What could be more American than voting? How about influencing the news media to give yourself broader, more favorable coverage?
And that’s exactly what they did.
They gave guacamole samples to sports reporters and news outlets, who in turn, filled their publications with guacamole factoids and avocado statistics that captured the appetites of America. No matter which recipe won the final vote or which team won the Super Bowl, the real winner was the avocado.
In the intervening years, the avocado has become more and more of a staple of the American diet. While the Guacamole Bowl was certainly a turning point in the long push for avocado acceptance, the increasingly diverse eating habits of the American populace and the lifting of trade restrictions with Mexico in the 90s have all contributed to the avocado’s ascendancy to our dinner tables.
So next time you’re in the produce section of your local grocery store, take a moment to really look at an avocado. It’s pretty weird looking, right? It doesn’t seem like something you’re supposed to eat. But the avocado serves as a reminder that we can’t judge on outward appearance alone. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. And failing that, you can always hire a good PR team.
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