The other night my friend Lisa announced to all gathered at dinner that if anyone had any questions about avocados they should ask me. They turned to me, curious, so I confessed an obsessive love for them. This prompted a face from the friend directly across the steaming bowl of fish in the center of the table. His mother was someone who wrote a lot about food in a "food worship" sort of way, intellectualizing rather than just enjoying it. He looked pained.
"Oh no," I responded, blushing. "I don't like avocados like that."
In this age of urban foraging and celebrity chefs and websites loaded with food porn, few foods are more thoroughly fetishized than the avocado. Well, you might say bacon. But as I've been known to counter, "Avocado is nature's bacon."
It is everywhere. There are entire sites devoted to avocado recipes. Unlike so many foods, they don't seem to be killing us, either -- they have good fiber, good unsaturated fat, and good antioxidants. Yet in these days where we increasingly know and care about food -- where it was grown, and by whom -- avocados remain a funny thing. Few of us have stopped to think that 95 percent of the avocados sold and obsessed over in the U.S. are Hass avocados. That's one variety. One. Out of more than 900. There are so many avocados of so many shapes and sizes, textures, and even flavors. Hass is a pretty good one, to be sure, but maybe there's something else out there we might also enjoy. Differently? As much? Oh god: even more.
I'm one of those ridiculous people who's always saying "This is the best!" and "This is the worst!" and "Oh my god it was so good it changed my life" -- but when I tried my first Pinkerton avocado, it wasn't hyperbolic to say that it changed my life. Five years later I'm still going back for the same avocados grown by the same farmer.
Consumption of avocados has grown more than 200 percent in the past decade, and outgrowing and outpacing that of other fruits.
Unlike most avocados I'd had up to that point, the Pinkerton was long and slender, with a neck. When I cut it open, after letting it sit until the fruit yielded just enough under the skin, the pit was smaller than any I'd ever seen. It had an avocado flavor, of course, but a more distinct avocado flavor. Like someone had turned up the dial, made it more pronounced in all the most pleasant ways.
Will Brokaw's family has been growing avocados since the late 1960s. Before the family started the farm in Soledad in '67 and the Santa Paula farm in '77, his parents had a successful nursery in California's Ventura County. Now they grow more than just avocados -- there are gorgeous citrus fruits, cherimoyas, and guavas too -- but there's a reason the Brokaw family website is called Will's Avocados.
The Brokaws grow avocados on both farms but they only grow Gwen avocados in Soledad. On the Santa Paula farm they grow multiple kinds of avocados, including Pinkerton, Hass, Reed, and Gillogly, all of which are descendants of the Guatemalan varieties, along with Mexican varieties like the Fuerte, and even the Zutano and the Bacon.
Will, who has access to plenty of avocados, regularly eats Hass -- during Hass season. The Hass, he told me, is the boilerplate avocado. It's a perfectly good tasting avocado, full of oil. So why, I asked him, are the Hass you get at the supermarket sometimes so gross and terrible? Is it because they're grown improperly?
Two reasons, he said. The first is storage. Often, the avocados at the supermarket or even in restaurants are already old by the time they get to the shelves or the plate. They've been stored off the tree and refrigerated for a long time. There's no such thing as a tree-ripened avocado -- avocados are picked hard and ripen once they're picked. Will said a certain amount of refrigeration is fine, so even the Brokaw avocados are refrigerated briefly before they get to market. But briefly is key, because the damage is cumulative.
The second reason is the growing season. In California at least, avocados have different seasons. Hass ripen in the spring and summer and Gwen ripen in the fall and even into winter. This is why, Will said, the Brokaws can get good avocados almost the entire year, with a break of maybe six weeks. This includes avocados during the time when Hass are normally not harvested in California, which is September through January. If the Brokaws depended on Hass as their main crop, they'd have avocados February through August only.