December 3, 2013
Elitzur Eitan has no desire to ever live within pre-1967 Israel. Until 2005, he lived in the Gaza Strip settlement of Gush Katif, which was forcibly evacuated under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Now, he lives deep in the West Bank, where he works at a vineyard on Givat Harel, a tiny settlement overlooking the ruins of ancient Shiloh and the red-roofed houses of the modern settlement that shares its name. “Places like this are where Zionism still lives,” he says.
They are also, surprisingly, places where excellent wines are being made. Gvaot, the boutique winery where Eitan works as a foreman, produces some of the best kosher wines in the world. Gvaot, which was established in 2005, produces and sells roughly 30,000 bottles of kosher wine per year. The medals lining the back wall of Gvaot’s tiny tasting room testify to the quality of its products: a 2006 Double Gold Medal in the Terravino Mediterranean International Wine Challenge for making the best wine in the $27-$36.99 category and a 2008 award in the same contest for “Best Israeli Kosher Wine.”
Gvaot has won over Jonathan Livni, the chief wine critic for the mass-market Yediot Ahronot newspaper, and was also a favorite of Daniel Rogov, a prominent Israeli wine critic who died in 2011. Rogov refused to set foot in the West Bank, but he consistently gave high marks to Gvaot’s reds. Livni, a retired military judge who starred in the documentary The Law in These Parts, is a committed left-winger who believes Israel should withdraw entirely from the West Bank. But he nevertheless describes himself as huge fan of Gvaot and a handful of other West Bank wineries, which he says benefit from the region’s high altitude, rocky soil and dry air, characteristics found nearly nowhere else in Israel. “I think good wine trumps politics,” he says. “And there are a lot of good wines from the occupied territories.”
But the vineyards in places like Shiloh are also among the biggest reasons to doubt that the new round of American-brokered peace talks will go anywhere. Secretary of State John Kerry managed to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners, but Netanyahu flatly rejected the idea of freezing construction in West Bank settlements like Shiloh or Givat Harel, even though they are so deep into the West Bank that they would almost certainly need to be evacuated as part of any peace deal.
Gvaot’s chief backer is Daniella Weiss, an activist who has spent decades at the helm of pro-settler groups like Gush Emunim and the Women in Green, arguing, loudly, that Jews have the right to live anywhere in the West Bank. “It’s the soil, the wonderful soil,” she said by way of explaining why Gvaot’s wines were so good, in a phone interview from her home in the settlement of Kedumim, a tiny village in an even more remote part of the West Bank than Givat Harel. “That’s what makes the grapes so special and that’s what makes the wines so special.”
Weiss also happens to be the mother-in-law of Shivi Drori, Gvaot’s chief wine maker, who has a doctorate in plant molecular biology from Hebrew University. “For every person who won’t buy wines because of where they come from, three want to buy it precisely because of where it comes from,” Drori said during an interview last month at the winery. Outside, the vineyard’s sloping trellises of grapes swayed gently in the winds rustling down from nearby hills.
Drori, a soft-spoken man who also teaches at a local university, founded Gvaot in 2005. He had begun planting grapes on Givat Harel years earlier with the initial idea of selling them to other wineries. When the first harvest came in, he found himself reluctant to part with the grapes. “I thought, ‘why lose these very good grapes? We should make a winery of our own,’” he recalled. “So we did.”
Weiss and her husband Amnon provided the millions of shekels Drori needed to get the winery off the ground, and it was successful with critics like Rogov almost immediately. “He succeeded in separating his own beliefs from the professional views he gave to the readers,” Dror, 40, said. “Not all of the critics do.”
But Weiss sees the vineyard as another tool for extending Jewish control over Shiloh and other parts of the West Bank. She believes Gvaot can provide much-needed jobs for local settlers, making it easier for them to stay in the region. More fundamentally, she believes that re-establishing Jewish life in and around Shiloh is a religious obligation.
“Everything that we do is about settling more Jews in Israel,” she says. “We have the homes and we have the people. Now we just need to build more of an economy.”
Weiss’s political beliefs permeate every aspect of the winery. Hundreds of American Evangelicals flood into the West Bank during each wine-harvesting season to work as volunteer grape pickers, but the winery refuses on principle to employ workers who aren’t Jewish.
Lior Amihai, a senior analyst for Peace Now, says that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators broadly agree future withdrawals would be based on land swaps allowing Israel to annex the areas near the Green Line where most settlers live in exchange for giving the new state of Palestine an equivalent amount of terrain that that is currently part of Israel. The problem, he says, is that Shiloh is so remote that Israel would need to give up an enormous amount of terrain to keep it.
“It’s really, really far from the Green Line,” Amihai says. “Israel doesn’t have enough land to swap. There are settlements whose future fate is known, but Shiloh is not one of them. There are no scenarios for a two-state solution in which Shiloh stays under Israeli sovereignty.”
Weiss says she’s not concerned. More than 340,000 Jews now live in West Bank settlements, and she argues that removing even a fraction of them would be politically and logistically impossible. Weiss doesn’t think the current talks stand much chance of success, a position shared, reluctantly, by Amihai and others on the Israeli left. “I call the Green Line the ‘Obama Line,’” she says. “Everything with him is settlers, everything is occupation. The reality is that we’ve become too big to move.”
Weiss has big plans for the winery, including building a restaurant for the busloads of tourists – including large numbers of religious Americans – who visit the winery and usually leave with bottles of red, whites or rosés. She hopes to begin construction this fall and have it open by the next wine-growing season.
Drori, the winemaker, is equally bullish about Gvaot’s future. Like his mother-in-law, he dismisses the chances for a peace deal that would require abandoning his corner of the West Bank. Drori says that he has good relations with the Palestinians living in nearby villages and insists that they are doing better under Israeli control than they would as citizens of an independent state. “The Palestinians are very happy,” he says. “You can see them walking with baby carriages, you see them with iPhones, you see them with satellite dishes. They’re prospering, and I’m quite happy about it. It’s good for us.”
Sitting in Gvaot’s small tasting room, Drori brings out a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, one of Gvaot’s most expensive wines. He swirls the glass around gently, brings it to his mouth, and takes a long sip. He said it was a favorite of Rogov, the wine critic. Then Drori stands up, shakes hands, and heads for the door. It’s just after 11 AM, and he has a busy day ahead. Drori and the graduate students who work in his lab at a nearby university are trying to identify and ultimately recreate the types of grapes that would have existed in the region during Biblical times. “We will have unique Israeli grapes, some for eating, some for wine-making,” Drori says. “Maybe in 3 to 4 years we can actually sit here and have a glass of true Israeli wine.”
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
November 27, 2013
Americans consume 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce—Ocean Spray’s official name for the traditional Thanksgiving side dish we know and love that holds the shape of the can it comes in—every holiday season. That’s four million pounds of cranberries—200 berries in each can—that reach a gel-like consistency from pectin, a natural setting agent found in the food. If you’re part of the 26 percent of Americans who make homemade sauce during the holidays, consider that only about five percent of America’s total cranberry crop is sold as fresh fruit. Also consider that 100 years ago, cranberries were only available fresh for a mere two months out of the year (they are usually harvested mid-September until around mid-November in North America making them the perfect Thanksgiving side). In 1912, one savvy businessman devised a way to change the cranberry industry forever.
Marcus L. Urann was a lawyer with big plans. At the turn of the 20th century, he left his legal career to buy a cranberry bog. “I felt I could do something for New England. You know, everything in life is what you do for others,” Urann said in an interview published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle in 1959, decades after his inspired career change. His altruistic motives aside, Urann was a savvy businessman who knew how to work a market. After he set up cooking facilities at as packinghouse in Hanson, Massachusetts, he began to consider ways to extend the short selling season of the berries. Canning them, in particular, he knew would make the berry a year-round product.
“Cranberries are picked during a six-week period,” Robert Cox, coauthor of Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: A History from Bog to Table says. “Before canning technology, the product had to be consumed immediately and the rest of the year there was almost no market. Urann’s canned cranberry sauce and juice are revolutionary innovations because they produced a product with a shelf life of months and months instead of just days.”
Native Americans were the first to cultivate the cranberry in North America, but the berries weren’t marketed and sold commercially until the middle of the 18th century. Revolutionary war veteran Henry Hall is often credited with planting the first-known commercial cranberry bed in Dennis, Massachusetts in 1816, but Cox says Sir Joseph Banks, one of the most important figures of his time in British science, was harvesting cranberries in Britain a decade earlier from seeds that were sent over from the states—Banks just never marketed them. By the mid-19th century, what we know as the modern cranberry industry was in full swing and the competition among bog growers was fierce.
The business model worked on a small scale at first: families and members of the community harvested wild cranberries and then sold them locally or to a middle man before retail. As the market expanded to larger cities like Boston, Providence and New York, growers relied on cheap labor from migrant workers. Farmers competed to unload their surpluses fast—what was once a small, local venture, became a boom or bust business.
What kept the cranberry market from really exploding was a combination of geography and economics. The berries require a very particular environment for a successful crop, and are localized to areas like Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Last year, I investigated where various items on the Thanksgiving menu were grown: “Cranberries are picky when it comes to growing conditions… Because they are traditionally grown in natural wetlands, they need a lot of water. During the long, cold winter months, they also require a period of dormancy which rules out any southern region of the U.S. as an option for cranberry farming.”
Urann’s idea to can and juice cranberries in 1912 created a market that cranberry growers had never seen before. But his business sense went even further.
“He had the savvy, the finances, the connections and the innovative spirit to make change happen. He wasn’t the only one to cook cranberry sauce, he wasn’t the only one to develop new products, but he was the first to come up with the idea,” says Cox. His innovative ideas were helped by a change in how cranberries were harvested.
In the 1930s, techniques transitioned from “dry” to “wet”— a confusing distinction, says Sharon Newcomb, brand communication specialist with Ocean Spray. Cranberries grow on vines and can be harvested either by picking them individually by hand (dry) or by flooding the bog at time of harvest (wet) like what we see in many Ocean Spray commercials. Today about 90 percent of cranberries are picked using wet harvesting techniques. “Cranberries are a hearty plant, they grow in acidic, sandy soil,” Newcomb says. “A lot of people, when they see our commercials think cranberries grow in water.”
The water helps to separate the berry from the vine and small air pockets in the berries allow them to float to the surface. Rather than taking a week, you could do it in an afternoon. Instead of a team of 20 or 30, bogs now have a team of four or five. After the wet harvesting option was introduced in the mid to late 1900s, growers looked to new methods of using their crop, including canning, freezing, drying, juicing berries, Cox says.
Urann also helped develop a number of novel cranberry products, like the cranberry juice cocktail in 1933, for example, and six years later, he came up with a syrup for mixed drinks. The famous (or infamous) cranberry sauce “log” we know today became available nationwide in 1941.
Urann had tackled the challenge of harvesting a crop prone to glut and seesawing prices, but federal regulations stood in the way of him cornering the market. He had seen other industries fall under scrutiny for violating antitrust laws; in 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which was followed by additional legislation, including the Clayton Act of 1914 and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914.
In 1930, Urann convinced his competitors John C. Makepeace of the AD Makepeace company—the nation’s largest grower at the time—and Elizabeth F. Lee of the New Jersey-based Cranberry Products Company to join forces under the cooperative, Cranberry Canners, Inc. His creation, a cooperative that minimized the risks from the crop’s price and volume instability, would have been illegal had attorney John Quarles not found an exemption for agricultural cooperatives in the Capper-Volstead act of 1922, which gave “associations” making agricultural products limited exemptions from anti-trust laws.
After World War II, in 1946, the cooperative became the National Cranberry Association and by 1957 changed its name to Ocean Spray. (Fun Fact: Urann at first “borrowed” the Ocean Spray name and added the image of the breaking wave, and cranberry vines from a fish company in Washington State from which he later bought the rights). Later, Urann would tell the Associated Press why he believed the cooperative structure worked: ”grower control (which) means ‘self control’ to maintain the lowest possible price to consumers.” In theory, the cooperative would keep the competition among growers at bay. Cox explains:
From the beginning, the relationship between the three [Urann, Makepeace and Lee] was fraught with mistrust, but on the principle that one should keep one’s enemies closer than one’s friends, the cooperative pursued a canned version of the [American Cranberry Exchange] ACE’s fresh strategy, rationalizing production, distribution, quality control, marketing and pricing.
Ocean Spray still is a cooperative of 600 independent growers across the United States that work together to set prices and standards.
We can’t thank Urann in person for his contribution to our yearly cranberry intake (he died in 1963), but we can at least visualize this: If you lay out all the cans of sauce consumed in a year from end to end, it would stretch 3,385 miles—the length of 67,500 football fields. To those of you ready to crack open your can of jellied cranberry sauce this fall, cheers.
November 14, 2013
Rene Redzepi was 25 years old when he opened his first restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, and 32 years old when it was crowned the best restaurant in the world. Noma, which stands for nordisk mad, or Nordic food, held that title from 2010 to 2012, serving a scrupulously seasonal menu of local and foraged ingredients including sea buckthorn, ramson flowers, puffin eggs and ants—a far cry from the meatball platter at Ikea. Redzepi is singlehandedly responsible for putting Nordic cuisine on the map, but after ten years at Noma, his influence extends much further than that. He has used his worldwide celebrity as a platform to promote innovation in food, from new culinary techniques developed at the Nordic Food Lab to shifts in food policy discussed at the MAD Symposium, an annual gathering of chefs, farmers and food professionals. In 2012, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world—and just last week anointed him a “god of food,” alongside his friends and fellow chefs Alex Atala and David Chang.
Tonight, Redzepi speaks at a Smithsonian Associates event about his new book, A Work in Progress, which documents one year behind-the-scenes at Noma. We asked the chef about creativity, the role of food in society, and the state of female chefs in the restaurant industry.
The new book includes a copy of the journal you kept in 2011, your daily recap of how things were going at Noma. What was your process in writing that journal?
It was quite a painful thing. In an everyday life that’s filled with so much discipline—waking up and cooking breakfast and lunch for the kids, and then going to work and being organized and being disciplined, and then coming home—you really just want to have a drink and go to sleep. But then you had to be disciplined again. I never intended it to be a book, actually. I did it for myself, to see if I could find some sense of who are we, why are there good days, why are there bad days and what type of restaurant are we, basically. Then my book editor read parts of it, she liked it and then it became a book.
At the same time, it was also a weird experience because I’m used to working in teams, and doing this thing, you’re all alone. It was a very lonely thing to do. It’s tough, standing there at the end of the night, looking at a screen, just waiting for the words to come out. But it really did give me a lot of new insight. This idea of coming home and being able to distill the day, understanding what made it a good or bad day, really has given me a better understanding of why I do the things I do.
You’ve said that you felt “restricted” after Noma was crowned the world’s best restaurant and that this journal was a quest to understand creativity and where it comes from. What were some of the conclusions you drew from writing the journal?
One of the conclusions is that success is a fantastic, smashing thing, especially accolades—but the accolade is not the mountaintop. It’s not the highest thing to achieve. That was what I needed to shed off in the process of writing the journal—that it’s a great stepping-stone, something you can use on the way. But if your only goal is to achieve accolades, you will quickly find yourself out. I thought maybe we had reached that mountaintop. That’s what people were telling me: “What now?” And there I was, 32 years old, thinking, “What do you mean, what now? I’m 32 years old!” To me, it wasn’t the mountaintop that everyone was telling me [it was]. But it confused me for a while. So writing the journal, the conclusion was let’s just play around again, be fearless. There’s nothing to lose; don’t get attached to the thing. That’s the most important thing I got out of it—just being open to breaking the mold that made your success.
How do you stay creative on a day-to-day basis?
Today it’s very much team-minded. Before the journal, it wasn’t so much; it was mostly decisions that I made all the time. But in trying to understand the process, I could see that the team was a good way of exhilarating everything. You’re also making it easier, if you have people to rely on and sort of comfort you at bad moments. It’s very much built on team effort now—conversations, brainstorm sessions. And, of course, ever-changing seasonality and weather—that’s also a big guiding force.
How would you describe your management style in the kitchen?
I used to be a control freak. I grew up thinking that as a cook, you are the big control freak who doesn’t care about anything besides the prosperity of your kitchen—and anybody who doesn’t follow along, just fall behind and leave. But once you go back and read everything [that happened] during a year, you can see that what really makes the good days good is when you actually feel good. When there’s fun involved. And the bad days are always the ones where you don’t handle situations well. There will always be bad moments. There will always be big failures. But you just need to deal with it well, as opposed to being a little angry idiot. So the journal made me change my management style quite a bit. It was a big step to me, from being trained in a very old way of cooking and stepping into a new thing. But it changed the restaurant, and I could never see myself going back to the traditional kitchen style.
You have a lot of career changers on your staff—an ex-banker, a Hollywood dropout, a lawyer and others who didn’t come in with culinary experience. What do they bring to the table?
There are so many fantastic aspects to gain from people who are somewhat involved within food culture. Right now, in the Nordic Food Lab, we have a graduate of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. It’s certainly not cooking, but his understanding of issues that surround the meal adds different layers to the research and to our base understanding of what food can be. It makes our restaurant better. The way I understand innovation today is that the more we are open to new, valuable information, the more we study history, memories or these new experiences, and bring them into the now—that’s when something new really happens. I try to be as open to all these factors as possible.
Food seems to be everywhere these days—in TV, politics, symposia like your own. Is it possible to take food too seriously?
No. I don’t think we take it too seriously at all. On the contrary, sometimes the discussion is a little bit stupid and not serious enough. But the thing is that food is not just food. If you want to say that, you’re kidding yourself. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned statement, even—a classic, Westernized, Protestant statement [of] food as sustenance and please don’t try to make it anything more than that. If that’s the level we choose to look at it, then what do you really need? To me, food is one of the things that makes life most livable—just like having a comfortable place to live in. Do we really need it in order to stay alive, in the same way that we just need to food to sustain us?
At the same time, there are so many critical issues, such as sustainability and agriculture, that surround food all the time. I think we are also realizing, more and more, how important the meal is. I know that now that I have a family. It’s easy to come across as some sort of romantic, when you talk about the importance of the meal and the family aspect, but I really believe that it’s important and I can see that it is.
So I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you take food seriously. When it’s treated as a fashion or as a way of generating huge revenue through bad TV programs, then it’s probably a bit too much. But putting food in a cultural light and valuing it as an important part of our cultural upbringing, I think that can’t be taken too seriously. I think it’s a good thing.
What are some of the ideas and innovations in the food world that you’re most excited about right now?
In the past five years, the exploration within fermentation is definitely the most exciting thing. That’s going to continue for a long time and maybe just become a natural, integrated part of any cuisine in the future. We forget bread and brewing coffee are fermentation. There are new explorations happening that might give us some new flavors on par with those.
I want to ask you about the Time magazine story in which you were named a “god of food.”
Yeah, I haven’t even seen it yet!
But you’ve heard the criticism?
No, I haven’t! Ever since I arrived in America, people have been talking about it. But it’s a typical American thing that everybody in America thinks that everybody [else] understands what’s happening in America. But no, I haven’t. I actually saw [the issue] on the airplane coming here. I arrived here yesterday and then this morning somebody said that there’s been criticism of it. But in Denmark they didn’t even talk about it, nobody wrote about it. What’s going on? I’d love to understand what’s going on.
Basically, the article profiles important leaders and innovators in the food world—people who are changing the way we eat and think about food worldwide. The controversy is that only four of the people profiled are women, none of them chefs, so people are asking, where are the female chefs? I know you weren’t involved in writing the article but—
I didn’t even know they were going to put us on the cover! They don’t tell you these things. They say, “Ah, we can see you [and Alex Atala and David Chang] in town at the same time, can we take a picture of you? We’re writing about friendship.” And then, two months later, you’re on an airplane and somebody tells you you’re on the cover of Time magazine.
Which female chefs do you think should have made Time’s list?
I can tell you that I met yesterday, for the first time, Alice Waters. I was totally starstruck. I was almost—I didn’t know what to do. To me she is a definite food “hero,” food…god, if you will.
But there are so many extraordinarily powerful women who deserve credit and attention. Last year at the MAD symposium, we had Vandata Shiva [who was featured in the article], but of course she’s not a cook. Then there’s Margot Henderson, who runs very quietly a restaurant called Rochelle Canteen in London, but she gave a very powerful talk. And I read the memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton but I’ve actually never visited the restaurant. Every time I come to America, it’s always an in-and-out trip. . . . If there’s one girl who will be [a “god of food”] in the future, it’s my pastry chef, Rosio Sanchez [also briefly mentioned in the article], who’s from Chicago but of Mexican descent. She’s extremely good.
When I started 21 years ago, women in kitchens were a total novelty. Now, 8 out of 24 chefs in our kitchen are women. I’ve stopped thinking about it so much. Although if there are periods where we get too male-dominated in the kitchen, I always try to create a balance and get more women in the kitchen.
Because they add something different?
Yeah, there’s no question about it. It’s very important, that balance. In many ways the style of cooking that we do fits more with the sort of delicate touch of a woman as opposed to this big, rumbling male with his big, clumsy hands. I’m exaggerating here, but you know what I mean. And the sensibility in flavor—women are a bit sharper in finding these small, delicate tones here and there, when tasting stuff. Kitchens are also notoriously macho. It’s a good thing to have more females in the kitchen to add balance and to take that a bit away, not to soften things up but to bring the discussion to a more serious tone.
Do you think there are more women now because the culture in the kitchen has changed, or because there are more opportunities for women? Why do you think it’s changed so much in your lifetime?
I don’t know. I think there are more opportunities. It’s not so much of a blue-collar trade that it used to be, ten years ago. When we started operating Noma, it wasn’t unusual that at least once a year, somebody would come to me and say, “Hey, I’m not coming to work for the next six months, I’m going to jail.” It sounds crazy, but that’s the way it was. It was like seeing one of those old-fashioned movies of steel plants, where men were working with fire and shouting dirty jokes at each other, fighting and drinking. Not that long ago, kitchens were very much like that. I think things are slowly changing—from guys leaving to go to jail, to having a Harvard dropout in our cuisine. So I think the whole environment has become more friendly—for anybody, really. It used to be you’d become a cook because you can’t be anything else.
Now that you’ve met Alice Waters, do you have any other food heroes that you still want to meet?
One that made me very sad that I never met was Charlie Trotter [who died last week]. I never got to meet him; I only texted with him. That’s another thing about the trade that we’re horrible at—celebration of icons and people who really did something. If they don’t have the latest, freshest new thing, then they just get forgotten. I remember in the 1990s there were two things you read. One of them was White Heat, by Marco Pierre White. The other was books by Charlie Trotter.
Where will you be dining while you’re in the U.S.?
I’m going to Alinea for the first time. [Alinea owner Grant Achatz] and I are actually old-time pals, but we never visit each other’s restaurants, so I’m an Alinea virgin and I’m really looking forward to it.
Redzepi will speak at the S. Dillon Ripley Center on Thursday, November 14, at 6:45PM, with book signing to follow. The event is sold out, but tickets may become available. Visit smithsonianassociates.org for more information.
October 24, 2013
The avocado is a fruit of a different time. The plant hit its evolutionary prime during the beginning of the Cenozoic era when megafauna, including mammoths, horses, gomphotheres and giant ground sloths (some of them weighing more than a UPS truck) roamed across North America, from Oregon to the panhandle of Florida. The fruit attracted these very large animals (megafauna by definition weigh at least 100 pounds) that would then eat it whole, travel far distances and defecate, leaving the seed to grow in a new place. That’s the goal of all botanical fruits, really. Survival and growth via seed dispersal.
But the great mammals disappeared forever about 13,000 years ago in the Western Hemisphere. Around that time, North America lost 68 percent of its diverse Pleistocene megafauna, and South America lost 80 percent, Connie Barlow, author of The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms says. But even after this major shift in the land mammal population, the wild avocado still requires the same method of seed dispersal, which makes it somewhat of an evolutionary anachronism.
“After 13,000 years, the avocado is clueless that the great mammals are gone,” Barlow explains. “Without larger mammals like the ground sloth to carry the seed far distances, the avocado seeds would rot where they’ve fallen and must compete with the parent tree for light and growth.”
A fruit with smaller seeds, like a berry, for example, can be consumed whole and dispersed by small mammals, making the chances of fruiting in a new place higher.
After the giant mammals had died out, if an avocado tree was lucky, a jaguar might’ve found the fruit attractive—the cat’s stomach is designed for digesting large hunks of meat, leaving potential for swallowing the avocado whole, though there is no evidence to support this idea. Rodents like squirrels and mice may have also contributed, as they traveled and buried seeds in the ground, rather than letting it rot on the surface. Wild avocados were appealing to larger animals because it had enough tasty flesh to lure them in and could be eaten in one bite. The fruit had a larger pit and less flesh than today’s avocados, but it really served as a quick snack for big mammals like the mammoth. Barlow writes in “Haunting the Wild Avocado,” originally published in Biodversity:
The identities of the dispersers shifted every few million years, but from an avocado’s perspective, a big mouth is a big mouth and a friendly gut is a friendly gut. The passage of a trifling 13,000 years (since the Pleistocene extinction) is too soon to exhaust the patience of genus Persea. The genes that shape fruits ideal for megafauna retain a powerful memory of an extraordinary mutualistic relationship.
How the avocado still exists in the wild after surviving its evolutionary failures remains a puzzle. But once Homo sapiens evolved to the point where it could cultivate the species, the fruit had the chance to thrive anew. Back when the giant beasts roamed the earth, the avocado would’ve been a large seed with a small fleshy area—less attractive to smaller mammals such as ourselves. Through cultivation, humans have bulked up avocados so there is more flesh for us to eat.
The avocado has been a staple food in Mexico, as well as Central and South America, since 500 B.C. Spanish conquistadors discovered the fruit from the Aztecs in the 16th century, but the ahuacate, the Aztec word for “avocado,” wasn’t grown commercially in the United States until the turn of the 20th century. By 1914, the exotic fruit made an appearance on California soil. Roughly 90 percent of today’s avocados are grown in California according to NPR. But Barlow is quick to point out the difference between a cultivated avocado and those found naturally.
“The wild varieties of avocados that are still somewhat available have a thin fleshy area around the seed—it wouldn’t necessarily be something that we would recognize as edible,” says Barlow. “When we go to the store and we see an avocado on sale, it’s always a question of will this be one with a tiny seed, or will it be a batch where the seed takes up five-sixths of the space of the fruit?”
Ecologist Dan Janzen conducted groundbreaking research on these and other “anachronistic fruits” and found that the avocado isn’t alone in this regard. His research in the late ’70s in the neotropics— an ecozone that includes both Americas and the entire South American temperate zone—sparked a shift in ecological thinking regarding these evolutionary-stunted fruits. Other examples include: papaya, cherimoya, sapote and countless other fleshy fruits of the neotropics. Another surprising “ghost” you may see everyday: Honey locust pods scattered about your driveway. All of these fruits are not considered edible by most native mammalian standards today. Barlow continues:
“In 1977, however, [Janzen] was beginning to suspect that he—along with every other ecologist working with large tropical fruits of the New World—had been wrong in one very big way. They all had failed to see that some fruits are adapted primarily for animals that have been extinct for 13,000 years.”
“We don’t have the liver or the enzyme systems to detoxify our bodies from something like the avocado seed,” Barlow says. “But at the same time, the rhino which has been around for ages, can eat all kinds of things that are toxic to everyone else.”
A South American folk recipe for rat poison mixes avocado pits with cheese or lard to kill off unwanted rodents. Whether or not humans are supposed to eat avocados from an evolutionary standpoint, America produced 226,450 tons of the fruit and consumed 4.5 pounds per capita in 2011. The avocado, a true “ghost of evolution,” lives on.
More avocado facts to drop at your next party:
- The Aztec word for avocado, ahuacatl means “testicle”. This is most likely because the avocado, growing in pairs, resembled the body part. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, Spanish speakers substituted the form avocado for the Aztec (Nahuatl) word because ahuacatl sounded like the early Spanish word avocado (now abogado), meaning “lawyer.”
- The Spanish-Mexican word “guacamole” was derived from ahuacamolli, meaning “avocado soup or sauce,” made from mashed avocados, chiles, onions and tomatoes.
- For reasons related to the word’s origin, the avocado is also considered an aphrodisiac. According to the book The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia, by the time the fruit traveled to Europe, the Sun King (Louis XIV) nicknamed avocados la bonne poire (the good pear) because he believed it restored his lagging libido.
- The Hass variety of avocado was named after a postal employee, Rudolph Hass, who purchased the seedling in 1926 from a California farmer.
- For more information regarding other “ghosts of evolution” Barlow’s theme song is a great listen:
October 21, 2013
It was the second day of autumn term at a small boys’ school in South London in 1979. Without warning, 78 schoolboys and a handful of monitors simultaneously fell ill. Symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and, in severe cases, depression of the central nervous system. Several patients were comatose with episodes of convulsive twitching and violent fits of fever. In many patients, there were signs of peripheral circulatory collapse. Within five days of the initial outbreak, all patients recovered in full, though some hallucinated for several days, Mary McMillan and J.C. Thompson report in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine. But what could cause such a sudden and mysterious illness?
Turns out, a bag of potatoes left in storage from the previous summer term.
After careful analysis of the sequence of events, the onset of symptoms was pinpointed to about four to 14 hours after the boys had eaten boiled potatoes that had a high concentration of the toxin, solanine, a glycoalkaloid that was first isolated in 1820 in the berries of a European black nightshade. Nightshade is the term used to describe over 2,800 species of plants in the scientific family, Solanaceae. Eggplants, tomatoes, and some berries are common members of the nightshade family—many of them contain highly toxic alkaloids.
That said, the potato is the most common cause of solanine poisoning in humans. But how do you know when solanine is present in a potato? The tuber is turning green.
Though the green color that forms on the skin of a potato is actually chlorophyll, which isn’t toxic at all (it’s the plant’s response to light exposure), the presence of chlorophyll indicates concentrations of solanine. The nerve toxin is produced in the green part of the potato (the leaves, the stem, and any green spots on the skin). The reason it exists? It’s a part of the plant’s defense against insects, disease and other predators.
If you eat enough of the green stuff, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, paralysis of the central nervous system (as evidenced by the incident above) but in some rare cases the poisoning can cause coma—even death. Studies have recorded illnesses caused by a range of 30 to 50 mg of solanine per 100 grams of potato, but symptoms vary depending on the ratio of body weight of the toxin and the individual’s tolerance of the alkaloid. The following cases recorded in various medical journals include examples of some of the most severe cases of solanine poisoning (many of which resulted in death):
1899: After eating cooked potatoes containing 0.24 mg of solanine per gram of potato, 56 German soldiers experienced solanine poisoning. Though all recovered, in a few cases, jaundice and partial paralysis were observed.
1918: In Glasgow, Scotland, 61 people from 18 separate households were affected at once by a bad batch of potatoes. The following day, a five-year-old boy died of strangulation of the bowel following extreme retching and vomiting. According to “An Investigation of Solanine Poisoning” by S. G. Willimott, PhD, B.Sc. published in 1933, the case was investigated by scientists, R. W. Harris and T. Cockburn, who concluded in their article, “Alleged Poisoning By Potatoes” (1918), that the poisoning was the result of eating potatoes which contained five or six times the amount of solanine found in normal potatoes. Willimott cites this particular occurrence as an example of the toxin’s prevalence: “A review of the literature reveals the fact that authentic cases of solanine poisoning are not so rare as authorities appear to believe.”
1925: Seven members of a family were poisoned by greened potatoes. Two of them died. According to reports, symptoms included vomiting, extreme exhaustion, but no convulsions like that of the schoolboys in London. Breathing was rapid and labored until consciousness was lost a few hours before death.
1948: A case of solanine poisoning involving the potato’s nightshade relative, the berry, was recorded in the article “A Fatal Case of Solanine Poisoning“ published in the British Medical Journal. On August 13 of that year, a 9-year-old girl with a bad habit of snacking on the berries that grew along the railroad tracks by her house was admitted to the hospital with symptoms of vomiting, abdominal pain, and distressed breathing. She died two days later. An autopsy found hemorrhages in the mucosa of stomach and middle section of her small intestine. The stomach contained about one pint of dark brown fluid.
1952: According to the British Medical Journal, solanine poisoning is most common during times of food shortage. In the face of starvation, there have been accounts of large groups eating older potatoes with a higher concentration of the toxin. In North Korea during the war years of 1952-1953, entire communities were forced to eat rotting potatoes. In one area alone, 382 people were affected, of whom 52 were hospitalized and 22 died. The most severe cases died of heart failure within 24 hours of potato consumption. Some of the less severe symptoms included irregular pulses, enlargement of the heart, and blueing lips and ears. Those who displayed these ailments died within 5 or 10 days. Authors John Emsley and Peter Fell explain their book Was It Something You Ate?: Food Intolerance: What Causes It and How to Avoid It: ”In the final stages [of the illness] there were sometimes a state of high excitability with shaking attacks and death was due to respiratory failure.”
1983: Sixty-one of 109 school children and staff in Alberta, Canada, fell ill within five minutes of eating baked potato. Forty-four percent of those affected noted a green tinge and a bitter taste in the potatoes.
Not to worry though, fatal cases of solanine poisoning are very rare these days. Most commercial varieties of potatoes are screened for solanine, but any potato will build up the toxin to dangerous levels if exposed to light or stored improperly. Often, the highest concentrations of solanine are in the peel, just below the surface and in the sprouted “eyes”—things that are typically removed in cooking preparation—though Warren would argue even boiling water in potato prep dissolves only a little of the alkaloid. Emsley and Fell continue:
Most people can easily cope with the solanine in the average portion of potato and show no symptoms of poisoning because the body can break it down and rapidly and excrete the products in the urine. But if the level of solanine is as high as 40 mg per 100 g of potato, symptoms include diarrhea…even coma.
The best way to prevent solanine poisoning is to store tubers in a cool, dark place and remove the skin before consumption. A general rule for avoiding illnesses like the ones described above? Green and sprouted? Throw it out.