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.
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.
Avocados are grown in places other than California, of course. They're grown in Florida, Mexico, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and New Zealand, and each place has different growing seasons that will overlap and allow for Hass to be available year-round. Hass are good avocados, especially when they're stored properly and eaten fresh. But an avocado isn't a beautiful thing just because it's an avocado. A slice of watery green on the plate, a dull flavorless scoop from a fruit you bought only days before: Just because it's called "avocado" doesn't mean your brain should switch to "This is delicious!" automatically.
According to the Hass Avocado Board, consumption of avocados has grown more than 200 percent in the past decade, and outgrowing and outpacing that of other fruits. A total of 484 million avocados were consumed in 2000. In 2012? Almost 1.5 billion. That's a lot of avocados, and that's a lot of Hass avocados.
I asked Will Brokaw about his favorite variety. After all, he's got access to so many. "I usually eat Hass during the spring and Gwen during the fall. But Gwen is my favorite. The Gwen really is."
He also likes the Reed, which, while delicious, is a very big avocado. Since he is just one guy who cooks for himself, a baby avocado like the Gwen makes more sense. He picks from his own stock, grabbing a ripe avocado right out of storage to put on toast. For a second I got lost in a reverie about the idea of having an entire stock of my own baby avocados and seriously considered becoming an avocado farmer.
The Reed looks like a big green softball is possibly the most misunderstood of all avocados. I didn't understand them myself for a few years, until I finally let one get ripe enough and discovered how delicious they be. Will agreed. When it comes to the Reed, "You really need to break people's stereotype. It's very important they don't cut into them too soon. There's always an expectation just by the looks of them they're going to be a lousy avocado. There's a threshold to overcome. When you overcome the threshold, it's very potent. It makes it even taste better."
Speaking of expectations and taste, I relayed my own disappointment regarding the Bacon avocado. "It's my absolute least favorite," I told him. I said I've had a hard time finding a Zutano that I can get into. The Bacon and Zutanos are different from Hass, Gwens, and the other Guatemalan varieties in that they have a lower fat content, which means they won't be as rich and creamy.
We had another avocado bonding moment when I was gratified to learn that the Bacon and Zutano avocados are mostly grown on the Brokaw farms in order to pollinate the other varieties. Although Will takes them to markets, where they do sell. I've heard people say the lower fat content is a reason for eating them more often, given their flavor and texture profile. I'd rather eat a smaller, richer Gwen or Hass, or even a chunk of a Pinkerton or a Reed. To me, Will's method of "a single serving avocado" makes more sense.
In California we are spoiled with our abundance of produce. But even here I watch people at the market, surrounded by variety, as they reach over the Gwens for a Hass, or say to someone "A Bacon avocado? What?" It's even interesting to think of how many more varieties there are available in the world, and to wonder which might be commercially viable and just as, if not more, delicious.
You can order avocados from Will Brokaw when they are in season, as well as from other growers here in California, if you are so inclined. Or seek out a Hass avocado from your local market, remembering where they come from and when they might be in season there. The whole point is to eat and enjoy a good avocado by letting it get perfectly ripe, spreading it on some nice toast, and sprinkling it with a little salt, perhaps a touch of good salsa. At least, that's the way an avocado farmer does it.