Apr 22, 2015
Life After Avocado Toast: Or the Questionable Morality of Foodie Culture
I remember how and when my avocado obsession started, and it was all thanks to Sylvia Plath. I read The Bell Jar the summer I turned 11, an unusually cool stretch of months that bore little resemblance to the electric, scorched nerves heat Esther Greenwood inhabited at the beginning of this slim novel, but that was ok. There were few things in Plath’s work that, at age 11, I recognized explicitly, and yet I was sure I would one day know them all deeply; I was sure my future would be filled with, you know, shots of vodka, neat; simultaneous interpreters, with small cars and smaller mustaches; and magazine internships in Manhattan, where I would get to go to elaborately catered luncheons. And about those luncheons: For anyone who loves food writing, easily one of the most memorable scenes in fiction is the one in which Esther Greenwood indulges in a multi-course catered lunch thrown for her and her fellow summer interns. There was caviar and poached chicken and crabmeat salad and avocados. Oh, the avocados.
Avocados are my favorite fruit. Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comics. He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and french dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce. The crabmeat tasted bland in comparison.
I remember reading this and thinking of how I’d mostly only eaten avocados in guacamole, or sometimes had a few slices as part of a salad with overly sweet carrot-ginger dressing at a favorite Japanese restaurant. This was the early 90s, after all, and I didn’t live in California—avocados just weren’t ubiquitous in the Northeast; Chipotle was years and years away from being a hugely popular chain, let alone a word many people could reliably pronounce. (Side note: It can’t only be my mother who inverts the “t” and “l” in “chipotle,” can it? It seems to be a motherly affliction, like saying Barnes and Nobles, or Targets. Anyway.)
All it took for me to fall in love with the idea of avocados was that one paragraph, though; I immediately began seeking them out, eating them à la Esther Greenwood, and then moving on to my own concoctions, usually involving mayonnaise and lime juice and copious amounts of hot sauce. I stayed away from crabmeat salad, first because it did taste bland in comparison, and second because that food poisoning scene in The Bell Jar stayed with me for a really long time.
And so for the last two decades, while any interest I’d thought I’d have in vodka or men with small mustaches has failed to fully appear, my love for avocados has stayed strong. Now that I’ve long since given up cigarettes, buying avocados is my most consistent splurge. They’ve never come cheap, but they’ve always felt worth it; so I’ve always been fine with absorbing the extra cost of guacamole in exchange for the extra flavor and texture. And in recent years, as avocado toast has become omnipresent on Instagram feeds and food blogs (and fashion blogs, because those two things have always gone somewhat inexplicably together—just ask Sylvia Plath), I’ve nodded in recognition. I understand this food trend, you see: I’ve long been an avocado advocate.
But so, as someone who has, for most of my life, loved avocados even before they were a trend and before they were loved by foodies—before the word “foodie” was even coined—I would have thought that I’d be dismayed to read Adam Sternbergh’s article in New York: “Have You Eaten Your Last Avocado?” In the piece, Sternbergh explains that the recent huge increase in the demand for avocados (both nation-and worldwide) combined with the ongoing devastating drought in California, which is a huge producer of avocados, and which needs “72 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, compared to, for instance, nine gallons to grow a pound of tomatoes,” has led to a critical situation for avocado-lovers, who are now faced with not only stratospheric rises in cost-per-avocado, but also the reality that the green stuff may soon no longer be available everywhere at all.
And it’s not just California: Sternbergh reveals that the majority of our avocados come from Mexico and Chile, which “have avocado issues of their own. In 1990, Chile had fewer than 8,000 acres of avocado trees; now it has more than 60,000 acres, and large avocado growers are draining the country’s groundwater and rivers faster than they can replenish themselves. In Mexico, where avocado farms are so lucrative that avocados are referred to as oro verde, or ‘green gold,’ the problems are even more troubling. Seventy-two percent of the avocado plantations in Mexico are located in the state of Michoacán, and much of the industry there is controlled or influenced by the Caballeros Templarios drug cartel.” Remember the drug cartel-induced lime shortage from last year? Yeah, now think of it in terms of avocados, or, as some people are calling it, “blood guacamole.”
But while things might seem dire for the avocado, the reality is that farmers won’t stop growing the fruit, rather they will probably just start raising the prices even more. Forget the already-expensive-when-you-think-about-it-for-even-one-second-at-all price of two avocados for five dollars, with which we’re already familiar. Soon, avocados could be going for as much as $5 or $6 each (which is actually sometimes already the case for organic versions). But you know what? People will pay that. The people who can afford to will pay, and they will continue to Instagram their avocado toasts and thus one of our society’s most basic needs—sustenance—will become more and more compromised by the fact that the quality of the food we eat has become inseparable with its cost, which, sure, might not seem like anything new—the best things in life are never free—but which is all the more stark when you think about the fact that the people who can not afford to eat the “good” stuff are now the subject of as much demonization as are people who smoke cigarettes.
With the rise of foodie culture and, yes, Instagrammed avocado toasts, has come an accompanying rise in the moralizing over what other people—specifically poor people—are eating. It’s the latest form of elitist propaganda, this dictation of what is good and bad to eat, another form of preaching about what the right way is to live your life. And spoiler: The right way is always the way that the people in power do it. Unless, you know, it isn’t—which has kind of long been the case with lots of now popular foods. Lobster used to be for prisoners! Oysters were once so common that their shells lined the streets of New York! And the avocado? It used to be such a niche “ethnic” food that it needed to be the subject of a huge advertising campaign in the 90s designed to increase consumer awareness before its newfound popularity. But it’s not like there weren’t plenty of people eating avocados prior to the avocado ad blitz—there were; they just weren’t the people with money. In fact, the avocado might only recently have become a staple of the American diet, but it has long been a staple of the Latin-American diet… only now that staple comes at a cost, one that is guaranteed to continue to rise.
This has happened with other formerly more affordable, now suddenly trendy and newly expensive foods (collards, kale, quinoa), but maybe it’s because the avocado is so popular now (whereas 20 years ago, Americans ate an average of 1.1 pounds of avocados a year, they now consume over 5 pounds) that this feels like the tipping point where all of us—even foodies—step back and think about how the choices we make when we eat actually have an effect on the world at large. It’s also maybe time to think about how eating needs to be about more than a self-righteous need to consume only “good” things. In fact, maybe it’s time to step back and question the whole idea of “good” food in general, and how its rise has coincided with the idea that it is more important to care for ourselves individually, then it is to care for things in a more universal, holistic way. Maybe eating well can’t anymore be about indulging, and must instead be about abstaining—especially when the common good is being sacrificed for the good of your Instagram feed. Because the sad thing with the avocado is, that the more you know, the harder it is to swallow.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen
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