How We Reached Avocado Peak: Super Bowls for Mexico’s Drug Cartels

Humans have been eating avocados on this continent for about 10,000 years, or possibly longer archaeological record. And we’ve been doing it more or less the same way all along, pureeing the fruit of the tree into a pulpy paste called guacamole.

It’s that green, chunky mass, unusual for a fruit: slightly savory, buttery in texture, and high in monounsaturated fats. Occasionally you might find slices draped over a tostada or enchilada or omelet, but when it’s pureed, it’s all “guac.” These include iterations like spread on artisan toast with seeds and fine greens (still weird, but ok), lathered into the shape of a turkey burger with Swiss cheese, or served alongside fries and other salsas at watch parties for all-American sporting events like the super bowl

The history of the annual NFL championship game as a cultural event is according to Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, whose encyclopedic knowledge of all things American-Mexican food is described in his book Taco USA

“Guacamole doesn’t take off until chips take off, and chips don’t take off until Doritos take off, and that’s the late 1960s,” says Arellano. “Guess what also starts to explode at this time? The Super Bowl.”

The Hass Avocado Board, which represents growers of the country’s best-known variety, says US consumers ate more than 2.8 billion pounds of Hass avocados in 2021 and consumption has been on the upswing over the past two decades.

Vickie Fite, a spokeswoman for the board, said we’re likely to eat about 124 million pounds of Hass avocados during Super Bowl LVI celebrations this week. It’s hard to imagine that any other time of year avocados would be consumed by so many people in such an intensely concentrated manner (in second place would probably be Cinco de Mayo, to gooey bar specials touting guac and margaritas).

Now that we’ve reached what we might call the avocado’s pinnacle, it’s remarkable how far the fruit has really come.

A farm worker harvests avocados in an orchard near Ziracuaretiro, Michoacan, Mexico.

A farm worker harvests avocados in an orchard near Ziracuaretiro, Michoacan, Mexico.

(Associated Press)

deep roots

Guacamole is an old word with Nahuatl roots ahuacamollia mashup of the word for the fruit ahuacatl (connected to the Nahuatl word for “testicles”, due to the shape and texture of the fruit) and Molly. In modern Spanish is avocado aguacate.

The colonizing Spaniards didn’t care much when they first reached these shores, focusing instead on bringing back to Europe such wondrous new products from Mesoamerica as tomatoes, chocolate and vanilla. Arellano writes that the colonizers were worried that the ahuacatl made indigenous Mesoamericans vulnerable to “lust”.

Native Mexicans, of course, never stopped eating them, and avocados remain a star in the Mexican food firmament, said Carol Hernández, an associate researcher at the bioethics program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). “It’s part of the Mexican diet in an ancestral form.”

Still, without its arrival and flowering in California, the fruit could never have achieved its current status, Hernández added.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that people began planting avocado trees in California, where our state’s fertile soil encouraged Mexican transplanting. Interest in the fruit began to soar after the accidental creation of the Hass strain. The “mother tree“ was planted by Rudolph Hass at La Habra Heights in 1926 and patented in 1935.

Avocados for guacamole being prepared at Tito's Tacos in Culver City in 2019.

Avocados for guacamole being prepared at Tito’s Tacos in Culver City in 2019.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

This original hatred, which died in 2002, spawned millions and millions of trees, and groves soon covered Southern California, mostly in areas later subdivided for homes. A California industry was taking shape, and as early as 1937 The New Yorker declared the avocado “future of food.”

In the post-war era, as interest in Mexican or “Spanish” food began to grow, prepared guacamole – made with varying recipes of (more or less) avocado, chili, onion, tomato, cilantro and lime – started appearing in restaurants.

The guacamole at historical El Cholo is a low wattage LA staple. But it’s El Torito, founded in 1954 when Larry Cano took a tiki bar in Encino and turned it into a “festive” American-Mexican restaurant that claims to be the first eatery to popularize the practice of making guacamole at the table. (In his book, Arellano states, “The history of Mexican food is riddled with such fantastic, impossible-to-prove claims about the origin of a variety of foods.”)

At the same time, California growers were looking for ways to expand their market and make avocados more accessible to new consumers in other parts of the country. The Californian company founded Calavo Growers in the mid-1960s introduced what it called the first processed consumer avocado product to be sold in stores.

It was basically a pound of frozen avocado pulp squeezed into a cylindrical can, the kind still used to sell frozen juice concentrate.

“You would slide it out of the container and mix it in with your recipes,” said Ron Araiza, an executive vice president at Calavo. “We started making this in 1964 and we were the first to do it.”

In 1964, California-based avocado company Calavo introduced a consumer product made from frozen avocado dip.

In the 1960s, California-based avocado company Calavo Growers began manufacturing a consumer product made from frozen avocado dip, beginning a search for pre-made guacamole.

(Courtesy of Calavo Growers, Inc.)

Over time, the health-food craze of the 1980s placed avocados on the cultural landscape as something of a Californian avatar—think the “California roll” in sushi. And as it turns out, researchers are finding that avocados are actually healthy (monounsaturated fats are “good” fats). UCLA is currently involved in a study that will have subjects eat an avocado a day for six months to test the hypothesis that avocados might help people lose weight. This study builds on previous studies involving Zhaoping Li, a UCLA professor of medicine.

“We tried to answer a fundamental question, which is, ‘Are all fats the same? Are all calories the same?’” Li said.

“It definitely shows those calories [are] not representative of everything. Managing obesity by thinking “calories in and calories out” is very limited. We have to pay attention to nutritional quality,” Li said. Her previous research suggests that avocados are beneficial in fighting heart disease and are good for the skin, among other health benefits.

“For the Super Bowl, you should have avocado as a natural food,” she said. “Give your body excitement with watching games and excitement with natural foods.”

The move north

People move, by and large, with food. The influx of immigrants from Mexico in a series of northward waves that began in the late 1970s changed the major cities of the Southwest forever. As people moved north, Mexico wanted to send avocados, too, but the rules protected California’s produce from Mexican competition — until a key year that could be described as a turning point for guacamole.

In 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed between Canada, Mexico and the United States. This new trade deal had a number of groundbreaking agricultural and food implications, opening Mexico to US corn and, crucially, the US to Mexican-grown avocados.

Mexican growers eagerly responded to US kitchen demand for Hass avocados. Production shifted south of the border with the California-made variety of avocado, and the rest became history.

Server Miguel Angel Martinez hosts the popular 2019 Carne asada con guacamole dinner at Lucy's El Adobe in Los Angeles.

Waiter Miguel Angel Martinez hosts the popular 2019 Carne asada con guacamole dinner at Lucy’s El Adobe in the Melrose area of ​​Los Angeles.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Today, Michoacán, a diverse and verdant western region, is the state at the center of avocado production in Mexico and the world, and it has done so almost entirely in response to US demand.

But this growth comes at a price. Avocados are emerging as one of Mexico’s top agricultural exports, but the industry has been blamed for a variety of social and environmental ills, largely because of claims by armed and violent drug cartels. Industry in Mexico is linked to rampant deforestation in Michoacán.

In the municipality of Cherán, which formed an autonomous indigenous government in response to anger over local-level corruption, a local leader said recently Associated Press that commercial avocado cultivation brings only “violence, bloodshed.”

Araiza, the Calavo manager, said his industry is aware of the security and deforestation concerns that come with the avocado business in Mexico. He adds that Calavo — which, like most California-based companies, sources most of its avocados from Mexico — is working with local governments to ensure worker safety and practice sustainable agriculture at its suppliers in Michoacán.

Despite this “sad reality,” Arellano said, most people wouldn’t give much thought to how inextricably linked Mexican drug cartels are to the Michoacán avocado trade. “The reason there’s so much avocado produced in Mexico is because Americans eat it, and wherever there’s money, bad actors will go in there and try to get that money,” he said.

A California staple

This year, the California Avocado Commission is forecasting a harvest of 306 million pounds, or a 15% increase over fiscal 2021.

“California avocado growers welcomed the December and January rains because they brought the region from severe drought to moderate drought, and rain is usually beneficial to tree health and avocado size,” Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing at the California Avocado Commission , called in an opinion.

The state, of course, will never again see the large-scale commercial avocado cultivation that has dominated the landscape for much of the last century. California’s production is now dwarfed by growers in Mexico.

Nonetheless, generations of Californians, including this author, have at some point grown up with avocado trees in their backyards, and that means the staple ingredient in your favorite Super Bowl dip is forever linked to our food culture.

“In California these days, only Fallbrook and Carpinteria are really grown, and those fields are getting smaller,” says Arellano. “Honestly, we need to start growing more of our own food here. Avocados get huge. They don’t need as much water as people say they do and they are hardy, magnificent trees.” How We Reached Avocado Peak: Super Bowls for Mexico’s Drug Cartels

Russell Falcon

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