|Avocado Tree, originally uploaded by avlxyz.|
I don’t get to see my friend, Karen Roberts MD, very often. But thanks to the Internet we are able to exchange updates on our lives a bit more often via e-mail. On occasion, we even chat on the phone. Regardless of the type of communication, one topic always comes up: Guacamole.
Karen, my wife Lynn, and I shared an apartment over two decades ago in the San Francisco east bay. Karen was completing her degree in nutrition while Lynn and I were beginning our lives as newlyweds.
Living with a nutritionist was much like having two winos living with a reformed alcoholic. This was in our white flour phase of life, and Karen never let us forget the dangers of Wonder Bread and red meat. (Twenty plus years later I was sitting in Karen’s kitchen watching her gulp down black coffee, smoke cigarettes and eat Pop-Tarts…but that’s for another column.)
One of the few dishes we agreed on and actually shared was guacamole. A week hardly passed when, stained with avocado goo, we did not indulge in a high caloric orgy of tortilla chips and guac. Though we all knew how fattening avocado can be, we just didn’t care. There were very few gratifications for us in those days. We refused to give up guacamole. On any night of the week, assuming we could get enough avocados, we would dice up one or two tomatoes, two or three green onions, mash a finger of garlic or add a half teaspoon of garlic powder, squeeze in a slice of lemon, a table spoon of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and beat it all to a super smooth consistency. A two-pound bag of chips rounded things out nicely. Later variations were to use red onions instead of green ones, salsa picante to taste, a few more garlic fingers, and lots of black pepper. Some of these variations worked out better than others, but we never threw away a bowl of guacamole, good or bad.
We drank a bit in those days, and a nice cold tequila sunrise was a pleasant addition to our guacamole fest. After a huge bowl of guac and two pounds of chips, not to mention the booze, dinner seemed like an over-indulgence. We then staggered off to bed and spent the rest of the evening burping. Ahhh, the simple pleasures of youth!
Eventually, my wife and I moved away to the mountains and spent a year at Columbia College. Avocados were not something readily available at the local market, and when they were, they tended to be out of our budget. On the rare occasions when we did indulge, the guacamole tasted wonderful, yet lacked one thing. Food is best eaten with a friend. When we returned to the bay area it would not taste much better. Karen Roberts had gone south to UCLA medical school.
I now grow avocados in my garden. The original tree we started from a pit, transfered to a pot, and after three years of coddling we replanted in our backyard. We added a smaller tree for pollenation purposes. With great patience we finally obtained our first avocados two years ago.
Avocado, known as Aguacate in Spanish, (The British name, Alligator Pear, thankfully never caught on) is the PORK of fruits and vegetables. Technically a fruit, legally a vegetable, avocado is filled with oils and fats that will clog your arteries as quickly as a slice of ham and a scoop of potato salad. Curiously, in clinical studies of human beings, the oil of the West Indian variety of avocado has actually been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels. (There’s always a white sheep in the family somewhere.)
The avocado probably originated in southern Mexico, but was being cultivated from the Rio Grande to central Peru before the arrival of Europeans. There are currently twenty-seven commercial varieties of avocado sold throughout the world. All were developed in the Americas.
Although originally a semi-tropical tree, avocados have adapted to a wide range of habitats. They do well in the mild-winter areas of California, Florida, and Hawaii. Some hardier varieties can be grown in the cooler parts of northern and inland California and along the Gulf Coast, though arguably the flavor is less pronounced. The northern limits of avocado adaptability in my home of California is approximately the chilly northern reaches of Cape Mendocino and westward inland to blazing hot Red Bluff. Avocados do best some distance from ocean influence but are not adapted to the desert interior. So, while snooty Palm Springs may have movie stars and oranges, we Northern Californians have avocados. A fair trade to my mind.
These are tough trees, sometimes reaching eighty feet in height. Mine tops out at about twenty. The West Indian varieties thrive in humid, tropical climates and are still viable at or near 32° Fahrenheit. The Guatemalan type are adapted to cool, high-altitude tropics, but can survive a killing frost down to 26° Fahrenheit. Mexican types are native to dry subtropical plateaus and thrive in a Mediterranean climate. Despite this, it takes a downward temperature of 24 – 19° Fahrenheit to break their spirit. Avocados need some protection from high winds that may break the branches. Although trees will grow between buildings, full sunlight is needed to bring the tree to full bloom.
These are long-lived trees. Outside of Mission Santa Barbara is one of the original avocado trees planted in California. Despite earthquakes, fires, and wind storms, it has kept growing since 1871. Seeds taken from this particular tree have been used to create 12 of the current commercial varieties purchased throughout the world.
Herbally, leaf and seed extracts have been used for a variety of medical applications, including treatment of diarrhea and dysentery and as an antibiotic. Native Mexican people used a paste of the fruit to ease the pain of burns and to reduce scarring. The paste was also used to reduce stretch marks. I do not suggest the immediate use of avocado on burns or on any serious second or third degree burn. The chance of infection is too great. I do suggest that fresh avocado can be used on mild burns, and sun burns, after the burn has been treated or cooled with water. It will keep the damaged skin supple and ease scarring.
A decoction of the peel can help lower blood sugar levels in diabetics by several points. Strong cups of the decoction were given to volunteers who then had their blood tested every hour on the hour. These brave men and women uniformly showed a drop in blood sugar levels. Urine tests on the volunteers showed a high level of sugar being expelled. Although how this works is not well understood, Mexican researchers at the University of Mexico suggest a chemical component from the peel binds with the sugar and helps with its elimination through the urine. I’ve done this experiment on myself only once, but refused to test my blood each hour. My test kit indicated a drop of some fifteen points in my blood sugar within a two hour period. The taste of the decoction was bitter and difficult to swallow. But in my limited test, it did work.
So there you have it. The humble avocado. Not just for guacamole anymore.
But eat it with a friend. I guarantee you, it will taste even better.