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The “Butter Pear”: The Mysterious Avocado

We had to be taught to eat and enjoy the once-exotic food. The avocado, the ancient fruit so vital to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, is eaten by most of us as a party dip or restaurant appetizer. Most of the guacamole we scarf down is consumed during our annual bacchanals, the Super Bowl and Cinco de Mayo. How many of us have ever sampled avocado soup or savored the fragrance of an avocado leaf? Gladys Fernandes, a waitress at El Tamarindo, the Salvadoran restaurant, once told me that the avocado of her homeland “huele bien” (smells good). In Latin America, the avocado is commonly treated as a basic staple. Families grow the tree in their door yards. “Four of five tortillas, an avocado and a cup of coffee —- this is a good meal,” a Guatemalan saying put it. In an earlier day it was dubbed the “poor man’s butter.”

A member of the laurel family, which includes cinnamom, bay leaf, and sassafras, the avocado plant shares their tantalizing aroma. The curious tropical vegetable, anatomically actually a fruit, has long been a source of puzzlement. It has been variously called alligator pear, avocado pear, butter fruit, and butter pear. In Mexico, where seeds dating back to 7000 BC have been discovered, the Aztecs called the tree “ahuacacuahatl.” The “testicle tree” bears fruits that hang in pairs from long stalks. The Spaniards shortened the name to aguacate.

The high-energy fruit, which grew wild in Mexico’s highlands, was avidly pursued by the Aztecs. The Indians probably selected the larger avocados and concentrated on cultivating them. The tree’s oily flesh was especially attractive to a people who subsisted on a low-fat diet. (We now know that the avocado contains high quantities of “good” cholesterol.) Scientists have suggested that the fruit’s high fat content gave it an evolutionary advantage. According to fruit specialist David Karp, they “theorize that this extravagantly rich pulp evolved to entice megafauna like mastodons and ground sloths to swallow the fruit whole and disperse the giant seeds.”

The avocado offered other benefits for the aboriginal farmers. Since it was one of the few fruits that didn’t ripen on the tree, the avocado could be harvested when convenient. Only when the fruit is plucked from the branch does it begin to soften. It happens then, food scientist Harold McGee explains, because it is cut off from a hormone in the leaves that prevents ripening.

Europeans were baffled by the avocado and groped for ways to utilize the strange fruit. “In the center of the fruit is a seed like a peeled chestnut,” observed Fernandez de Oviedo, a chronicler of the Indies, in 1526. “And between this and the rind is the part which is eaten, which is abundant, and a paste similar to butter and of very good taste.” Since the avocado resembled a pear, Oviedo thought it pleasant to have with cheese as a dessert. José de Acosta, another Spanish writer, preferred taking his avocado with sugar while other commentators recommended salt. Jesuit missionary Bernabe Cobo urged that avocado oil be employed for cooking and lighting. Cobo suggested that the fruits, like olives, be stored in brine.

Others remarked on the fruit’s meatiness. Père Labat, a French priest who traveled through the Caribbean during the 16th century, observed wild pigs, carnivorous animals, gobbling up avocados on the ground: “These animals become in consequence marvelously plump, and their flesh contracts an excellent flavor.”

The similarity of avocado flesh to butter also made the fruit attractive. English sailors spread avocado, which they called “midshipman’s butter,” on hardtack biscuits in the 1700s.

The avocado was also invested with mythic power. William Dampier, an English buccaneer, passed on a popular superstition in an account of his Voyage Round the World published in 1697: “It is reported that this fruit provokes to lust and therefore is said to be much esteemed by the Spaniards.”

The fruit gradually made its way to the United States. “Alligator pears“  were first grown as ornamental plants in Florida in 1833. In California, horticulturalists pioneered the avocado industry. In the early 20th century, Frederick O. Popenoe, the owner of the West Indian Gardens in Altadena, California, organized expeditions to Latin America to bring back budwood for grafting avocado trees. His associate, Carl Schmidt, returned with a plant that survived the great California fire of 1913. The tree, called the Fuerte (vigorous), was the foundation for avocado farming in the Golden State.

His son, Wilson Popenoe, a self-described “explorer” for the USDA, rode horseback thousands of miles through the Central American highlands searching for tropical fruits. Part of his mission was to make the avocado a “staple foodstuff.” Popenoe sent budwood from the tree wrapped in moss to his sponsors in Washington.

Amateur farmers played a key role in avocado development. An unlikely innovator, a mailman who moved from Milwaukee to California, bred a new variety. After a chance planting of 300 seeds, he produced a leathery fruit that was a cross between the Mexican and Guatemalan avocados. The Haas, a pebbly, black-skinned fruit, became a supermarket favorite. More durable than than the more flavorful but thin-skinned Mexico avocado, it was eminently shippable. The Haas had another crucial advantage — it could be picked year round. California farmers put their money on the Haas, which became the avocado of choice.

The introduction of avocados spurred a land boom in California. During the 1920s, real estate operators encouraged would-be farmers to plant the profitable crop. Sales brochures touted the avocado as a health food. “The Avocado is more than a dessert fruit or a relish . . . it is a Health fruit possessing unusual Vitalizing and Rejuvenating properties,” according to one pitch. Growing avocado, real estate developer Edward Hart promised, would lead to a “heritage of Health to your children in a cluster of ‘Green Gold.’”

As avocado farming expanded, the infant industry started looking for a way to market the largely unknown product. First and foremost, the fruit had to acquire a more palatable name. “Alligator pear,” spokesmen felt, was a liability. After pressure from the American Pomological Society and the USDA, the fruit was renamed “avocado.” A public relations campaign in the 1920s was mounted to rid the avocado of another negative association: The avocado, the promoters proclaimed, was not an aphrodisiac.

The industry, then, had to determine the best audience for the fruit. As historian Jeffrey Charles tells the story, the marketers aimed their appeals to well-heeled women. During the 1920s, the California Avocado Society extolled the avocado in advertisements in the New Yorker and Vogue as the “aristocrat of salad fruits.” Food writers commissioned by the organization wrote fancy recipes for avocado and grapefruit salad and avocado stuffed with lobster, which were distributed to grocery stores. Early advocates of the fruit had hoped to turn it into a basic staple, even a replacement for meat. “A pound of avocado equals a pound of beef steak,” farmer William Spinks asserted in 1915. Now the industry was targeting consumers desiring fitness. Avocado salad, Jeffrey Charles observed, “was now understood by nutritionists as part of a healthy, lean regimen.”

In post-World War II America, avocado farming was portrayed in the media as a relaxing and prosperous part-time vocation. Southern California, one columnist carped, became the symbol of the new lifestyle: “[I]t was made to appear that almost anyone out of the East could come to Southern California, collect an avocado tree or two, pitch a hammock between them and wait for the fruit to ripen. When it did ripen, it immediately turned to gold. Security, prosperity, and happiness ever after.”

For most of the early era of avocado marketing, little was said about the Central American origins of the product. A foreign association, it must have been presumed, would scare shoppers away. In 1970, a cover article in Sunset Magazine, the preeminent booster of Western leisure, showcased the fruit. The magazine pictured the avocado on the cover and did a piece hailing guacamole. “Guacamole: Sauce of the Americas: It’s endlessly versatile. It’s a dip, a sauce, a dressing, a spread. It’s guacamole.”

No longer a cause for squeamishness, the avocado has arrived. The fruit is familiar, not alien. At the Jolt ’N Bolt coffeehouse in my Adams Morgan neighborhood, health-conscious patrons relish avocado and hummus in pita and avocado BLT sandwiches. Not far away at Pho Viet, a Vietnamese café in Columbia Heights, the owners offer customers a traditional drink from their country, avocado and condensed milk.


An Appetite for Avocados

El Tamarindo (1785 Florida Ave., NW; 202-328-3660).  Guacamole is offered with many of the Salvadoran restaurant’s dishes.

Jolt ‘N Bolt (1918 18th St.; 202-232-0077). (See above.)

Lauriol Plaza (1835 18th St.; 202-387-0035). I often order sliced avocado with lime along with my favorite dishes from this Latin restaurant, pollo asado (roast chicken) and masitas de puerco (Cuban-style morsels of pork).

Pho Viet (3513 14th St., NW; 202-629-2839). (See above.)