The avocado dressed like a sultry French maid was perhaps showing a little too much skin. The avocado race-car driver was, of course, making a pit stop. And those sad-faced fruits at the funeral of Arnie the Avocado—well, we can only hope for his sake that there is life after dip.
Welcome to the annual Fallbrook Avocado Festival, a daylong celebration in the heart of Southern California's avocado-growing country, where, on the second Sunday in April, just about anything you can do to an avocado is done to an avocado—including decking it out to compete in the best-dressed avocado contest. (This year, the porcupine avocado won.)
But the 75,000 people who jam Main Street in Fallbrook to feast on Holy Guaca-Moly (slogan: God, Is It Good!) and other delights aren't the only Californians to be enamored with a food that seems equal parts butter, banana, and Bibb lettuce—85 percent of California's households buy avocados, compared to 30 percent in Pennsylvania and 23 percent in South Dakota.
In fact, if there were an official state fruit (California legislators can't agree on one), it might be the avocado. The trees thrive in the mild Southern California climate, where 6,000 growers—from the Mexican border to as far north as Fresno—raise avocados worth $314 million a year, on 58,600 acres, accounting for 95 percent of all avocados grown in the United States.
Avocados, however, aren't native to the Golden State. The fruit originated in Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies. Californians started planting seedlings from Mexico in the middle of the 19th century; the first commercial orchard was established in 1908 at the current site of the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino. The Fuerte variety (a name that means "strong" in Spanish) was at one time the foundation of the California avocado industry.
Nowadays, the Fuerte—along with the Bacon, Zutano, Reed, Pinkerton, and just about every other commercially grown variety of green-skinned avocado—has been replaced in supermarkets by the Hass, whose skin turns purple-black when ripe. In fact, the Hass is the black sheep of avocado varieties, developed somewhat accidentally by Rudolph Hass, a postman with an avocado grove in La Habra. Hass's rough, dark variety was the result of a failed graft.
That was 1926. Today, the Hass's good qualities have led to its dominance in the market, comprising 92 percent of all avocados sold. Its attributes include: a long eight-month harvest season; dependable year-after-year yields; high oil content; creamy texture and buttery flavor; lack of stringy fiber; and skin that leaves no telltale black thumbprint to discourage subsequent shoppers when it's pressed to test for ripeness.
The oil content of an avocado increases as it stays on the tree. This means that some of the year's best California-grown avocados are in stores now, as the state's growing season winds down in September and October. How can you take advantage of all that flavor?
Start at the store. "Unless you're making guacamole or another avocado dish that day, pick a fruit that's not ripe," says Robert Wilson, executive sous-chef at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, a hotel halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
To check for ripeness, squeeze the fruit in the palm of your hand. A ripe fruit yields to gentle pressure; an unripe fruit feels firm. Color is another giveaway: The skin of a ripe Hass avocado has turned from green to very dark green or purple-black. To speed up the ripening of a firm avocado, put it in a paper bag with an apple, which releases a harmless gas that hastens the process. Ripe avocados are best eaten within a day.
If you're like most people, you're buying avocados to make guacamole—the classic dip made from mashed avocados, lemon juice, garlic, tomatoes, onions, salt, and chile peppers. George Bamber, a grower in Fallbrook, manufactures fresh-from-the-fields Holy Guaca-Moly and sells it at the Fallbrook Avocado Festival and at farmers' markets in Santa Monica and Pasadena. He offers tips for truly awesome guac.
Everybody has a great recipe for guacamole, depending on their personal taste, and all of them are good, Bamber says. "But most people tend to put too much lemon or salt in the recipe, overwhelming the avocado taste," he says. "They also turn the avocado into a puree, instead of leaving it chunky." For best taste, the dip should be more like goulash, Bamber, says, with the avocados and other ingredients in chunks.
But there's more to enjoying avocados than guacamole. "The avocado is an incredibly versatile vegetable," Wilson says. Barbecue anyone? Rub or spray a little bit of lemon juice and oil on an unskinned quartered or halved avocado and grill the slices for two to three minutes flesh side down, just enough to heat them through. (The lemony oil keeps the fruit from oxidizing during preparation.) Add salt and pepper, and they're ready to eat.
Avocados, of course, are great in salads. And in homemade salad dressings. "I use avocado rather than egg yolk to emulsify a vinaigrette," Wilson says. Substitute one pureed avocado for the egg yolk in a vinaigrette recipe. You can also use avocado in place of high-fat mayo in recipes. "I use mashed avocado rather than mayonnaise to bind crab cakes," Wilson says. "I mash the avocado into a fine puree and then fold it together with the crab."
Speaking of fat, the avocado's oil is monounsaturated, a good fat that can actually help lower heart-damaging cholesterol, says David Heber, M.D., director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition and author of What Color Is Your Diet? Avocados are loaded with vitamin E (another plus for your heart); lutein (a phytochemical that can help prevent common eyesight-robbing problems like macular degeneration and cataracts); and glutathione (a cancer-preventing antioxidant).
"A diet that includes five to 11 daily servings of fruits and vegetables helps prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and many other health problems," Heber says. "The avocado should be part of that diet."
Consider an avocado hike at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, the only resort in the state to offer a formal walk through a commercial grove (bordered by Los Padres National Forest and overlooking the Pacific). Or at the spa, get an exfoliating treatment that ends in a rubdown with avocado oil. Needless to say, the avocado is a familiar breakfast, lunch, and dinner ingredient at the resort's restaurants and café. And who knows—since Bacara is only 90 minutes north of Los Angeles—you might catch a glimpse of French Maid Avocado, who our sources say has been seen around the groves getting mushy with Brad Avocado Pitt.
California Avocado Festival, October 4-6, Linden Ave., downtown Carpinteria, Calif., (805) 684-0038, www.avofest.com.
Fallbrook Avocado Festival, April 19, Main St., downtown Fallbrook, Calif., (760) 728-5845, http://www.fallbrookchamberofcommerce.org/events-v2/avocado-festival.html.
La Habra Heights Avocado Festival, May 17, The Park, La Habra Heights, Calif., (562) 694-6302, http://la-habra-heights.org/.
California avocado mille-feuille
This recipe was created by Robert Wilson, a native of Southern California and executive sous-chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel.
- 4 heirloom or colorful tomatoes (red, orange, yellow)
- 4 lettuce leaves (green leaf, Boston, or frisée)
- 1 ripe California avocado, seeded, peeled, and cut into 15 thin slices, divided
- 1 tablespoon virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, divided
- 4 slices (¼-inch thick) buffalo mozzarella, divided
- ½ cup prepared crab or tuna salad, divided
Cut each tomato into four slices. Place a lettuce leaf on each salad plate. To assemble: Place a tomato slice on lettuce, top with one tablespoon crab or tuna salad and one slice avocado, then sprinkle with oil and vinegar. Top with another tomato slice and one slice avocado, sprinkle with oil and vinegar. Top with another slice of tomato, one slice mozzarella, and one slice avocado; drizzle with oil and vinegar. Top with remaining tomato slice, remaining crab or tuna salad, and avocado slice; drizzle with oil and vinegar. Repeat process, preparing four stacks.
Tip: Before serving, stabilize each stack with a long sandwich-size toothpick.
Photography by Sheri Giblin
This article was first published in September 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.