This article is from the March 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Holy Guacamole!, A Short History of the Avocado

by Michael Thompson 

Michael Thompson is an artist, designer and writer from San Antonio, Texas. He has had a life-long interest in the history and culture of Mexico and enjoys traveling there often. He has contributed several articles to The Mexico File, including "Savoring Oaxaca" and "Temazcal: The Magic of Fire and Water."  

By the dim light of their cooking fires, the women of the palace labor away, preparing enormous quantities of food for the evening meal of the emperor Montezuma and his retinue. One woman in particular is in charge of preparing Montezuma’s favorite dish, ahuacamolli. 

Working quickly, just before it is to be served, she and her helpers peel the ripened ahuacatl fruit. They remove the large pits and the leathery skin, then drop the green flesh of the fruit into their molcajetes and mash it into a chunky paste. Next, they add a few dollops of a sauce made from vine-ripe tomatoes, green chilies and a dash of sea salt. 

As each woman’s batch is completed, it is carefully piled onto a large, finely crafted ceramic platter, imported exclusively for the Royal Household from the city of Cholula, across the snowcapped mountains to the east.  

Then, when all is ready, a young maiden cradles the platter in her outstretched arms and carries it into the dining hall. With head bowed, she kneels down and places the dish before the great and powerful Montezuma. He casually takes a warm corn tortilla from the basket at his side, folds it in half and uses it to scoop up a bite of the ahaucamolli. He savors its flavor and creamy texture, then smiles and nods his approval. It is a simple dish, but with a flavor fit for a king.  

We still enjoy this dish today, although its name and ingredients have changed slightly down through the centuries. What the Aztecs called ahuacamolli, we now know as guacamole. According to cookbook author María Dolores Torres Yzábal, the word comes from Náhautl, the language of the ancient Aztecs. It is a composite of two words, ahuacatl (meaning testicle) and molli (indicating something which is mashed or pureed into a sauce). 

With the coming of the Spaniards, the original Aztec pronunciation of these words eventually changed over time. While the Spaniards eagerly incorporated the avocado into their diet, they had a problem pronouncing its native name. Thus, ahuacatl became aguacate; molli changed to mole and ahuacamolli was transformed into the word we are familiar with today, guacamole.  

And, just as the name of the dish underwent a transformation, so too did the ingredients. In addition to the traditional tomatoes and chilies, the Spaniards enhanced guacamole’s flavor with such European imports as onions, cilantro and lime juice.  

Also, while Montezuma may have scooped up his ahuacamolli with a fresh corn tortilla, with the introduction of lard by the Spanish, crispy fried tortilla chips became a tasty and convenient means of conveying a bite of guacamole from plate to mouth.

Even the avocado itself has undergone a transformation. There are many different types of avocado native to Mexico and they come in a variety of shapes (round to pear-shaped), sizes (1 ounce to 4 pounds) and colors (green to purple). One type is called the Criollo. It is small with an edible skin and its flesh has an anise-like flavor. Its leaves are commonly used, both fresh and toasted, to flavor soups, stew, moles, barbacoa and sometimes as a wrapping for small tamales. The Criollo is commonly found in rural areas of Mexico. 

The avocados we are familiar with here in the United States are all hybrids developed from a native Mexican variety. In 1911, a California nursery company sent a representative to Mexico to locate a superior type of avocado and send cuttings back to the States to be propagated. Of the numerous cuttings, one survived a severe freeze. It was from this hardy stock that the California avocado industry was born. The variety was called Fuerte, meaning strong.  

The most popular variety today is the Hass. It was discovered in the 1920’s by a postman named Rudolph Hass. He had bought several seedlings to plant on a two-acre plot of land. The fruit from one tree in this planting was deemed particularly good. Hass contacted a man named H. H. Brokaw and entered into an arrangement to have the tree propagated. Hass was to receive 25% of the proceeds from the sale of the seedlings from the new variety. 

Other varieties of avocado include Bacon, Gwen, Pinkerton and Zutano. Each has its own characteristics and each matures at a different time of year.  

But of course, the avocado can be used for more than just guacamole. In Mexico, it is often sliced and used to garnish soups, salads and tacos. But today, the possibilities are almost limitless. The California Avocado Commission has a website that lists many recipes with new and intriguing ways to incorporate avocados into daily meal planning. You can find this information at .  

A few of their more unusual ideas include recipes for Avocado Schnitzel, Avocado Pate, Beer-Battered Fried Avocado Wedges and Avocado Ice Cream. The possibilities today would have astonished the chefs working in Montezuma’s kitchen over 500 years ago.  

So, the next time you’re enjoying a dish of guacamole, take time to reflect on its origins and its transformations down through the ages. But don’t let the etymology of the word itself bother you. Just savor its fresh, delicious flavor and creamy texture and feel privileged ¼ because, as simple as it is to prepare, it truly is a dish fit for a king.