avocado2The History of the Avocado – Part 1

Early Encounters [Partial Excerpt from the book]

The avocado has a long history of domestic cultivation especially in the area of its origin, Central and South America.  In Mexico there is evidence of the plants growth in cultivation from some 8,000 years ago. In the book, America’s First Cuisines, the author Sophie D. Coe notes that:

“The small, nearly spherical seeds of wild avocados are found in archaeological sites in Oaxaca and the Tehuacan valley of Mexico at dates of 8000 to 7000 BC……By 6000 to 5000 BC, they were being cultivated in Tehuacan, as shown by the increasing size of the fruit and the change in seed shape from the round wild type to egg-shaped.”[i]

The name appears early in the languages of the indigenous cultures of the Mayans, Aztecs and Incans. It is called ‘palta’ from the Quecha word used in South America in countries like Chile, Ecuador and Peru. The Aztecs called it āhuacatl, a synonym actually for testicle, and called the early avocado paste that was commonly made with avocados, chilies and tomatoes, as āhuacatl molé.  Aguacate became the word used in Spanish North America and Northern South America. Add the sound “guaca” to the word molé meaning sauce, and you get our current English word guacamole.

Avocados remained exclusive to the areas of Central and South America for millennia. The exciting expansion of the avocado to other parts of the world followed the brave and adventurous voyages of the sailors, historians, pirates, buccaneers, explorers and scientists as they traveled to previously uncharted territories to seek new lands from the 1400s to the 1800s. And, once they experienced avocados, they always brought them along. 

In the 1400s and 1500s, the Spanish were very prominent in worldwide exploration. The first account of the avocado in Spanish in the New World was in 1518 by Martín Fernández de Enciso (c. 1470–c. 1528) who gives us the first description of the plant from a European perspective in 1518 in his geography treatise and findings book, “Suma de Geografía que Trata de Todas las Partidas y Provincias del Mundo”. Not long after that, one of the most famous explorers of all time, the Spaniard Cortez noted the use of avocados in his logs as he arrived in Mexico City in 1519. He noted that guacamole was more for the upper class but others also figured out ways to partake. After accounts by Cortez, in 1526 the historian assigned to the conquistador, Fernandez de Oviedo (1478-1557) wrote the following:

“In the center of the fruit is a seed like a peeled chestnut. And between this and the rind is the part which is eaten, which is abundant, and is a paste similar to butter and of very good taste.”

A great reason for the international appeal of the avocado was its usefulness on those long sea voyages. One English variation calls them “midshipman’s butter” or “butter pear”. For early explorers traveling the high seas without refrigeration, the slow-ripening avocado came in very handy.

In 1672 W. Hughes, physician to King Charles II of England, in his visit to Jamaica, wrote that the avocado was:

“One of the most rare and pleasant fruits of the island. It nourisheth and strengtheneth the body, corroborating the spirits and procuring lust exceedingly.”

In Jamaica, as well as many other places, they were also called ‘alligator pear’. This is because of the rough dark green skin of some types resembling an alligator skin or as some say, they got this name since they were seen to be growing in areas with lots of alligators. Today, Jamaicans refer to them simply as pears.  The Portuguese call it Abacate. In North America and English speaking countries throughout the world, the word avocado is used. The Dutch call it avocaat, the French call it avocatier and the Spanish now call it abogado.

The Spanish explorers, scientists and pirates began the expansion of European culture to the Americas and also brought many tremendous discoveries from the Americas outward, including the great avocado, to North America   to Europe and eventually to Asia.  From the humble origins in the Americas where avocados were well established as a staple, and even known as a ‘fertility fruit’ by the Aztecs, to worldwide acceptance and expansion, the avocado has seen the world. Let’s take a journey with the avocado across the globe.new_world_log

Excerpt from the log and publication:  “A New Voyage Round the World”, William Dampier, 1697, CHEPELIO, ONE OF THE SWEETEST ISLANDS IN THE WORLD. The 22nd day we arrived at the island Chepelio [Bay of Panama].

Chepelio is the pleasantest island in the Bay of Panama: it is but seven leagues from the city of Panama and a league from the Main … The soil is yellow, a kind of clay. The high side is stony; the low land is planted with all sorts of delicate fruits, namely, sapadillos, avocado-pears, mammees, mammee-sapotas, star-apples, etc. The midst of the island is planted with plantain-trees, which are not very large, but the fruit extraordinary sweet.…

The avocado-pear-tree is as big as most pear-trees, and is commonly pretty high; the skin or bark black, and pretty smooth; the leaves large, of an oval shape, and the fruit as big as a large lemon. It is of a green colour till it is ripe, and then it is a little yellowish. They are seldom fit to eat till they have been gathered two or three days; then they become soft and the skin or rind will peel off. The substance in the inside is green, or a little yellowish, and as soft as butter. Within the substance there is a stone as big as a horse-plum. This fruit has no taste of itself, and therefore it is usually mixed with sugar and lime-juice and beaten together in a plate; and this is an excellent dish. The ordinary way is to eat it with a little salt and a roasted plantain; and thus a man that’s hungry may make a good meal of it. It is very wholesome eaten any way. It is reported that this fruit provokes to lust, and therefore is said to be much esteemed by the Spaniards: and I do believe they are much esteemed by them, for I have met with plenty of them in many places in the North Seas where the Spaniards are settled, as in the Bay of Campeachy, on the coast of Cartagena, and the coast of Caracas; and there are some in Jamaica, which were planted by the Spaniards when they possessed that island.[iii]

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[i] America’s First Cuisines, Sophie D. Coe, University of Texas Press, 1994, pp44

[ii] Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks05/0500461h.html#ch7, retrieved 9/5/2010

[iii] Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks05/0500461h.html#ch7, retrieved 9/5/2010

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