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:
April 30, 2013
In April, most seasonal restaurants tend toward green foods. As the weather shifts, and new crops come to life, plates are decorated with tender young peas, asparagus, green garlic, and spring onions. And now, the green strawberry is joining the ranks.
Picked earlier than their red cousins (and abundant this time of year), green strawberries have been popping up on high-end menus for the last several years. And they show no sign of going out of style any time soon. Evan Rich, chef at the new San Francisco hot spot Rich Table, decided to take the plunge this year after noting the presence of green strawberries on a number of menus he admired. Then the underripe berries made an appearance at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Yerena Farms, a small organic berry grower based in California’s Monterey County was promoting the unusual item, and selling them to a number of prominent local chefs.
Rich bought several flats of the berries and pickled them using a simple brine of champagne vinegar, sugar and salt. Now he’s serving them with yogurt atop a scallop chip (the result of a process wherein the inventive chef purees, flattens, dehydrates and fries a local scallop).
So far, Rich been pleased with the results — a tart, perfumy flavor that catches diners just a little off-guard. “They have all the qualities of a strawberry without the sweetness,” he says. “They also provide a little hint of the sweet summer fruit to come.”
In cities like Portland, Oregon, where spring goes on a little longer, chefs have been seen pairing green strawberries with things like duck confit and rhubarb well into May. But green strawberries aren’t just for savory dishes. Brooklyn’s hipster pizzeria Roberta’s makes a green strawberries shortcake and at San Francisco’s Perbacco, pastry chef Laura Cronin regularly incorporates this unusual ingredient into her desserts this time of year.
“They have a more acidic flavor than red strawberries. I candy them or toss them in a sugar syrup seasoned with bay leaf and other spices and herbs,” she said recently. “I love the crispness they bring to the dish as well as the kiwi-like flavor they take on when macerated in sugar.”
Cronin’s latest creation? Candy cap mushroom donuts filled with green strawberry compote.
Unless you grow them yourself, finding a regular supply of green strawberries might be tricky for the average consumer. But it’s worth asking the vendors at your local farmers market if they’d considering picking a few flats of the fruit a week or so earlier than planned. Of course, green strawberries probably won’t ever ripen up to peak sweetness, so if you do pick or buy them at this stage, be sure to have a plan on hand for how to use them, like this simple pickling recipe that Yerena Farms has been handing out at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
For the pickling:
1 part rice wine vinegar
1 part sugar
½ part water
¼ part lime juice
For the flavoring:
Dissolve the sugar into the vinegar with water. Cool completely. Combine strawberries, flavorings, and brine in a mason jar. Refrigerate for 2+ days. Get creative with flavorings. Have a pickle party and pair with cheese!
August 29, 2012
The unassuming town of Buñol, Spain, home to 9,000 residents, is situated along the quiet Buñol river. It boasts a great paella, along with its many fruit, almond and olive trees, and compared with its neighbor to the east, the city of Valencia, is rather sleepy.
Until 40,000 people from around the world start throwing over 100 metric tons of tomatoes at one another.
La Tomatina, Buñol’s annual tomato throwing food fight, took place this morning with participants trying hard to reach one goal: to throw as many tomatoes as possible in what has come to be known as the world’s biggest food fight. With one single fruit and one single color, it might not be all that aesthetically pleasing, but you’d have to be crazy to say that it doesn’t look like a hollering good time.
The event began with its traditional Palojabón (literally, hamstick), a greased wooden pole two stories high topped with a delicious-looking Spanish ham. One brave participant must climb the slick stick and retrieve the ham in order for the events of La Tomatina to officially begin. This year, like most, nobody reached the ham. And this year, like most, it did not matter. People began throwing tomatoes anyway. Heeding only a few rules–tomatoes must be squished before being thrown to avoid injury, and tomatoes are the only weapons to be used–participants in this year’s festival donned protective glasses and gloves to protect themselves from the flying fruits. You may be asking yourself, what is the point of such chaos? It is just that. Pure, chaotic tomato-celebrating fun.
But La Tomatina is not only a food fight. Though the tomato throwers might be the most memorable part of the week-long event, the festival is a true celebration of cuisine and the end of the summer. It features paella cook-offs, parades, dancing and fireworks and attracts tourists from around the world to enjoy the scenic city and take part in its local pride.
The origins of the tomato fight, which dates back to the 1940s, is unclear. The AFP says that it began with a friendly, neighborhood food fight, while townspeople in Buñol claim that the first tomatoes were thrown by residents angry at the city’s councilmen. Whatever its humble beginnings, the event is now an internationally recognized event.
Dictator Francisco Franco banned La Tomatina for its lack of religious ties, but when he left power in 1975 the event was swiftly resumed. While most raucous, obscure European traditions seem to date back centuries (Oktoberfest, for example, began in 1810), La Tomatina is a relatively new event, fueled by a nationalistic passion for celebrating even the most everyday oddities.
When the fight ended and the participants were covered in tomato puree, the streets were left cleaner than they were before. Bunol’s officials say that it is the acidity levels of the tomatoes that scrub the concrete clean, but it might also be the water used, sourced directly from a Roman aqueduct. Town residents kindly sprayed down a couple of hundred residents, while other tired food fighters headed to the Bunol River to wash themselves free of tomato residue.
It’s a shame they never added any garlic or basil to the mix, to spread over a nest of angel hair, but we can only hope that tomato fighters will be more industrious and culinarily-inclined in coming years.
June 9, 2010
I grew up in Southern California, partly in Orange County, which at the time still had nearly as many strawberry fields as shopping centers. I remember looking out at the rows of low plants and feeling bad for the migrant farm workers hunched over picking off the berries in the hot sun. All the same, I loved the (literal) fruits of their labor, those sweet, juicy red berries, which my family bought by the box at farm stands.
Most of those fields have since been replaced by tract homes, and over the years it seems to have gotten harder and harder to find good strawberries. California produces about 75 percent of the nation’s strawberries and, because they are so delicate and perishable, many of the ones you get in the supermarket now are large, flavorless and dry. I nearly gave up on my formerly favorite fruit.
So it was a pleasant revelation to me when I moved to upstate New York a few years ago and tried my first local strawberries—thumb-sized, ruby red and so packed with sweet strawberriness that I could have cried. The season here is short—only a few weeks in June and early July—but it just so happens that my wedding is planned for peak strawberry season, and my fiancé and I plan to serve them alongside the cake. I don’t even care if I dribble some of the red juice on my dress.
Two years ago I went to a pick-your-own strawberry farm, and it turns out I was right to feel sorry for the migrant workers. After only an hour or so of picking, my back was screaming in pain. All the more reason to use them wisely.
If you can get your hands on good strawberries (and can restrain yourself from just popping them like gumdrops), here are five good ways to eat them:
1. With cream. This is as classic as it gets. Once you combine strawberries with cream (whipped or otherwise), you can use them to top shortcake or angel food cake, or mix with pieces of meringue for the English dessert called Eton Mess (which originated at Britain’s most famous private school).
2. In a pie. The year that I picked my own strawberries, I decided to use them in a pie to bring to a July 4th barbecue. It was simple—just glazed berries in a cookie crust—but, thanks to the quality of the berries, it was good enough to garner raves from some Culinary Institute of America students.
3. In a risotto. One of my colleagues uses wild strawberries in an unexpected risotto, though I imagine cultivated ones would also work. This is a good use for berries that aren’t very sweet. Just follow your favorite risotto recipe—or try this one from Saveur—adding chopped berries, and finish with fresh Parmesan cheese and a fresh strawberry garnish.
5. In a cocktail. Daiquiris are the popular choice, and margaritas a close second, but for something a little different try using a strawberry shrub—known as a gastrique in France—which is an old-fashioned boiled and chilled mixture of fruit, vinegar and sugar that can be drunk as is or added to a cocktail.
March 1, 2010
The coconut is one of the most useful plants in the world. Some cultures use almost every part of the tree from the leaves to the water inside of the coconut fruit. In fact, the water is sterile, and was used as a intravenous solution in a pinch during World War II. The flesh of the coconut fruit, the fluid inside the coconut, coconut milk (made of liquid squeezed from the coconut flesh) and even the root of the palm, known as hearts of palm, are all eaten. Here are a few ways to enjoy the different parts of the coconut:
1. Batter: Think coconut-breaded shrimp. Use flakes of coconut flesh to coat shrimp and bake or fry. You can also coat other seafood, like tilapia, or try chicken with dried coconut flakes.
2. Salad: Hearts of palm are harvested from the root of a palm tree. Doing this kills the entire tree, so a salad made with the root was once called a “millionaire’s salad.” Today, rather than using coconut palms or other varities, most heart of palm comes from the peach palm—the only palm varietal not to die after its root has been harvested. Hearts of palm have a subtle flavor similar to asparagus or artichoke. Paula Deen has a recipe for a salad with spinach, strawberry and hearts of palm that I can’t wait to try.
3. Curry: Coconut milk is the base for many Thai curries. I make a creamy red curry using red curry paste, a can of coconut milk, chicken and sweet potato. For more information, and some actual recipes, Serious Eats as a nice breakdown of curry type with recipes.
4. Substitute for dairy: While I don’t keep kosher, recipes using coconut milk instead of dairy milk to follow kosher laws are intriguing. Take this Sweet Potato Coconut Crumble from Gourmet Kosher Cooking or these coconut milk scalloped potatoes. Coconut milk can also serve as the base of non-dairy ice creams for those lactose intolerant ice cream lovers. Grist recently reviewed non-dairy ice cream options, and the coconut milk varieties won.
5. Piña Colada: Some snow from the great snow storm of 2010 is still lingering on the ground here in D.C., but it’s already March and spring will be here soon. When it starts to warm up, fix yourself a piña colada and pretend you’re on a tropical beach somewhere. This popular cocktail is made from rum, pineapple juice and cream of coconut, which is derived from coconut milk.