In the year 1519 , Hernando Cortez, Spanish soldier of fortune, set foot in Mexico City, the first white man to do so. Among the many significant events of that historic day was the discovery of the most versatile fruit of the New World, the avocado. In 1526, Oviedo, historian to the conquistadores, wrote the following description of the avocado and gave the first directions for eating it…
‘In the center of the fruit is a seed like a peeled chestnut. And between this and the rind is the part which is eaten, which is abundant, and is a paste similar to butter and of very good taste.’
The avocado fruit is not sweet, but fatty, and distinctly yet subtly flavored, and of smooth, almost creamy texture. It is used in both savory and sweet dishes, though in many countries not for both. The avocado is very popular in vegetarian cuisine, as substitute for meats in sandwiches and salads because of its high fat content.
Oviedo speaks of the avocado of northern South America, but the fruit seems to have originated in the lands to the north…in Central America and Mexico. Here the Aztecs named the fruit ahuacatl, and the avocado tree that flowers today in the United States was yesterday growing wild in the ruins of the Aztec and Mayan temples.
From Mexico the avocado spread into Peru, where in the pre-Incan city of Chanchan archaeologists have unearthed a double water jar in the shape of an avocado, dated around 900 A. D.
The fruit appears next in the West Indies, where new varieties developed. It was in these tropical islands that many travelers first encountered avocados, among them the young George Washington, who wrote in 1751 that ‘agovago pears’ were abundant and popular in the Barbados.
We come now to the California avocado whose history goes back to Puebla, a city eighty miles from the Mexican capital. Puebla, which has been called the ‘star of Christian Art in the Western Hemisphere,’ is reached from Mexico City via a beautiful road bordered by cornfields, bean fields, and bright blazes of flowers. Here is a most appropriate place to celebrate the blending of Spanish and Indian cookery that produce the Mexican cuisine.
To Mexico City, Puebla, and Atlizco in 1911 came the twenty-one-year -old American, Carl Schmidt. Schmidt was employed by the West Indian Nursery in Altadena, California. His task was to search the Mexican marketplace for avocados of outstanding quality and to locate the trees from which they came. He cut budwood from the best trees, numbered each, and shipped them by Wells Fargo to Altadena. Many buds refused to adapt to the soil and climate of California; but number 15, which Schmidt had cut from a tree in the garden of Alejandro Le Blanc, flourished. When it survived the great freeze of 1913, its strength was officialy recognized and it was given the name Fuerte…Spanish for vigorous and strong. The Fuerte tree that Schmidt found in Atlixco created California’s avocado industry.
It should be noted that the first planting of avocados in California was actually recorded in 1848, by Henry Dalton near what is now Azusa, a few miles east of Los Angeles. All evidences of this planting have long since disappeared. But trees set out in Santa Barbara by R. B. Ord in 1871, have thrived until recent years.
The avocado tree is related to the laurel and is the fruit of the genus Persea….a bright green tree that grows from Mexico south to Colombia and Peru and north to Florida and California. The three strains of avocados that now exist…Mexican, West Indian and Guatemalan…were first catalogued in 1653 by a Spanish padre named Bernabe Cobo. These strains included hundreds of avocado varieties which come in sundry shapes…round, pyriform (pear-shaped), crook-necked (like a squash); skin colors…green, purple, maroon, and jet black; and skin textures…smooth to pebbly.
This fruit of the New World has been known by many names. In Chile, Peru, and Ecuador it is called Palta, the name given to it by the Incas. In West Africa, it is called custard apple. In Spain it is known as abogado; in France, avocat. The latter two names, both of which mean lawyer, and the English word avocado have probably all derived from attempts to speak phonetically the Aztec name ahuacatl.