Thou green avocato, charm of sense
M. J. Driscoll
The avocado, persea gratissima, although a relative newcomer to European tables, has been cultivated in tropical America since pre-Columbian times indeed, archeologists have found avocado seeds buried with Peruvian mummies dating from the 8th century B.C. The word, in one form or another, has passed into most European languages, occasionally accompanied by pear, or cognates thereof, to which it was felt to bear a resemblance in shape. The word itself, avocado, resembles the term used in most modern European languages to designate those with a professional engagement in the law, giving rise to endless witticisms at the expense of that noble estate, which has come to play so important a role in modern society. In Italian, for example, avvocato is used for those involved in the legal profession, and avocado for the fruit, while in French the two are identical, viz. avocat, causing I shouldn’t wonder any number of zany mix-ups and misapprehensions of which the French are so fond. The connexion with solicitors is made explicit in Danish (although perhaps not the Danish of the more internationally-minded younger generation), which has advokatpære, and Swedish similarly advokatpäron.
Although the word is commonly presumed to be Spanish in origin, avocado is in fact not used in any form of Spanish spoken today: a practitioner of the law is an abogado, while the fruit is called aguacate. The word ultimately derives from the Nahuatl, i.e. Aztec, ahuacatl (or awákatl, depending on how you like your Nahuatl spelt), and is first attested in Spanish in 1560. Early forms in English, such as avogato and avicato, suggest the influence of the Spanish term for a solicitor. Another form of the word is alligator pear, widely attested in 18th- and 19th-century English, and, presumably through English, in other languages as well, e.g. German, Alligatorbirne, and Danish, alligatorpære, arising perhaps through association with their rough greenish-brown skin it will be acknowledged that in this sense avocados bear a closer resemblance to alligators than they do to lawyers, whatever resemblance the latter two may have come to bear to each other. Avocados were also known as midshipman’s butter in 19th-century sea-faring circles, due, one hopes at least, to their having been used to spread on hardtack. An associate of mine, who lived for a time in South Africa, told me that her then husband developed while there such a fondness for mashed avocados or avos, as they are vulgarly known in those parts on toast for breakfast that it was a major cause of their subsequent divorce.
Although it is rarely mentioned in etymological dictionaries, the literal meaning of the Nahuatl word ahuacatl is testicle. Its application to the fruit of the tree persea gratissima is presumably due to a perceived similarity in shape although here it should be remembered that the larger varieties (of avocado) can weigh over two kilos and there is also evidence that the early Meso-Americans regarded the avocado as an aphrodisiac, the pre-Columbian equivalent of Viagra, which is presumably why they wanted to be buried with them. You never know what you're going to need in the afterlife. Interestingly, one of the meanings given in Santamaria’s Diccionario de Mejicanismos, for aguacate, when used in the plural, is: Los testículos, sobre de ciertos animales, como el caballo, el toro, etc. This, again, is presumably on the basis of a perceived similarity in shape (cf. huevos, eggs, which visitors to Mexico and indeed most of Central and South America are advised to avoid using, at least when ordering breakfast); testicles, in other words, especially big ones, look like avocados, which look in turn like testicles. As noted elsewhere, all truly is one.
There are not many references to the avocado in Icelandic literature as with snakes in Ireland, it may be said that no avocados whatsoever are found in the entire corpus but in the course of my research I did encounter The Sugar-Cane: A poem, in four books published in London in 1764, and, incredibly, several times after that. This excruciatingly bad poem, over 2000 lines long, is the work of James Grainger, M.D. (1721?-1766), who shortly after the publication of his Poetical Translation of the Elegies of Tibulles (London, 1758) which despite having been revised by Percy was unmercifully censured, according to the DNB, in particular in the Critical Review, then under the editorship of Tobias Smollett embraced the offer of an advantageous settlement as physician on the island of St Christopher's, now St Kitts . Although largely, and not surprisingly, dealing with various aspects of the cultivation of sugar cane, Grainger does, toward the end of Book 1, offer the following tribute to our virescent friend:
While Procyon reigns yet fervid in the sky;
Before starting upon my next Festschrift article, which I hope to devote to the mail’d anana, I should myself like to offer up the following:
Avocados are chiefly eaten raw, either in salads or as guacamole (from Nahuatl ahuacamulli, i.e. a mole, or sauce, made from avocados). While living in Germany in the mid 1980s I found myself in the situation, as one sometimes does, of having more avocados ripen at the same time than could reasonably be forced on the family in the form of guacamole. I remembered seeing a recipe for avocado cooked with chicken and thought I’d give it a try. A look through the familial cookery books turned up no such recipe, however; one even went as far as to state that avocados could not be cooked, as they became bitter. Undaunted I forged ahead, with only my instinct and a vague recollection of what I thought I had seen as my guide. The outcome, I am pleased to report, was delicious, and indeed I have prepared the dish many times since even, on occasion, for guests but I have never found the recipe, or anything remotely resembling it, in any book. So here, presumably for the first time ever, is the phantom chicken and avocado recipe:
The chicken should be cut up into pieces, sprinkled with salt and pepper and then browned in the oil, along with the garlic, which should be chopped, not crushed. The chicken pieces should then be arranged in a casserole, preferably earthenware, but glass or cast-iron will do; add one glass of the white wine while drinking another and then place the covered casserole in a preheated oven at 200o for 20-30 minutes, during which time the avocados should be sliced and at least one other glass of the wine consumed. Add the avocado slices and leave for a further 10 minutes (they will become bitter if left too long). Have another glass of wine. Serve with pasta (for example tagliatelli), rice or boiled potatoes, a green salad, and of course more white wine. Guten Appetit.
After the initial appearance of this article, in a Festschrift for Peter Springborg published in only a single copy, the sister of a friend, who lives in Lyon (the sister, that is), sent me the recipe found below in the left-hand column, which observant readers will note is in French. I had noticed that AltaVista provides a machine translation service (appropriately named babelfish), and, thinking I might give it a try, decided to run the French recipe through it. The result can be seen in the right-hand column. Hard as it may be to believe, nothing has been changed.
© M. J. Driscoll This article first appeared in Petersillie dyrket til Peter Springborg den 28. januar 1998 (København, 1998).