Friday, 21 December 2012

The Avocado

When I first moved into a shared house, in my third year at university, I was a complete beginner at cookery.  I didn't have a clue.  But, as the expectation was that we would all take our turn at the stove, I did what any student would do: read a book, and take it from there.

Actually, it was worse than that: I was a complete beginner at food.  My mother had been going out to work since I was about 6, and was a reluctant and unimaginative cook (sorry, Mum, if you're reading this over my shoulder from the spooky ether somewhere, but you know it's true!).  To make things worse, I was a fussy eater: no onions, no vegetables other than peas or sweetcorn, that sort of thing.  So, frozen foods like beefburgers and fish-fingers, which were new on the market back then, were a godsend for her.  Tasty, child-friendly food in minutes! *  It is an interesting question, what impact my prodigious consumption of MSG over the years must have had.  Perhaps, like Alf Tupper's fish'n'chips, it is the secret of my super-human powers.  Or my delusional nature.  Or both.

Things were changing in Britain, food-wise, in the 1970s.  If you bought into the alternative-lifestyle package, then "whole foods" were a big part of the deal.   Brown rice and pulses sat around in sacks on the bare-board floors of whole-food shops (in those days, often run by a commune) which had been stripped back to their Victorian essentials.  Actually, a lot of the "alternative" 70s was about stripping out the false fronts and facades installed in the 50s and 60s, literally and metaphorically, in search of a buried authenticity.  As if truth were a decorative cast-iron fireplace concealed behind plasterboard.

Actually knowing what to do with any of this dusty stuff was rare knowledge, spread out into the community via various self-styled Earth Mothers and Macrobiotic Shamans.  Quite often they got it badly wrong, but you were usually too gratefully stoned to complain much about eating the flavoured mud served at their tables, and learned not to mock or to suggest a takeaway.  Other times, other manners.

A new sophistication about food was happening, too.  Exotic things like red and green peppers began to appear in greengrocers, and ordinary folk began eating out.  This was the age of prawn cocktail, scampi, chicken in a basket, and Black Forest gateau, all washed down with Liebfraumilch.  Mostly disgusting and badly cooked, but when you're acquiring new tastes you have to learn to push through the Disgust Barrier, a bit like a sword-swallower overcoming his gag-reflex.

Which reminds me of a story.

One day, one of my housemates (whose upbringing was rather more sophisticated and metropolitan than mine) returned from the shops looking particularly pleased with himself.  "Look what I've got!" he said, and removed a bulbous, warty light-bulb-shaped thing from a paper bag, that was the most hideous dark green in colour.  "Um, syphilis? Blood poisoning? A dragon's egg?" I wondered.

"Look, this is the most delicious thing in the world...  An avocado pear!"

Now, I'd heard of avocados -- they crop up in Gerald Durrell books -- and knew that "avocado" was a very now finish for bathroom fittings.  I'd never seen one before, though.  Why anyone would want a dark-green sink covered in warts like a toad was beyond me, but then I didn't much fancy prawn cocktail either.

With much ceremony, my friend prepared vinaigrette, and sliced the pear in two, revealing an enormous stone sticking out of one half, like a dead lizard's eye, and a corresponding hollow in the other half, surrounded by yellow-green, putrid-looking flesh.  "They taste way better than they look!" he promised, pouring vinaigrette into the hollow, and offered me a spoonful.  Aah! It was possibly the most distressingly awful thing I had ever tasted.  Not since I was blindfolded and had cloves placed on my tongue in a  "guess the taste" game in Cubs had I felt so violated by a food item.  I retched, and spat it out.

With disbelief, I watched my friend wolf down the whole thing, as if were the most delicious thing in the world.  I think he thought I was being perverse and theatrical, but it might as well have been monkey's brains he was spooning out of that satanic green egg.  I have never eaten one since.

Sometimes, the Disgust Barrier is simply set too high.

Not an avocado...

* For some reason, this reminds me of a favourite joke from Mad Magazine.  A man in the desert is contemplating a packet labelled "Instant water -- just add hot coffee".


John Krill said...

I once brought an avocado to school.

At noon we all sat down for lunch and when I revealed my avocado the kid next to me went nuts and demanded I get rid of it or he would beat me up. Don't remember what happened next but I still love avocados.

Such was the risks of taking an avocado to school in the 50's.

Merry Christmas!

Mike C. said...

John Krill,

I presume this scene took place in the USA? An avocado in a school lunchbox in 1950s Britain would have been as unthinkable as ... well, it's hard to think of anything more unthinkable than an avocado in a school lunchbox in 1950s Britain. Bananas were pretty damn exotic (wartime rationing only ended in 1954).

Merry Christmas to you, too!


Martin said...

We ate a lot of avocados in the 70s. We also suspended the stones (with the narrow end upward) in jars of water, until they sprouted. We then planted them in pots around the place, not in the hope that they would ever bear fruit. Just because we could. Growing plants, back then, was a worthwhile exercise...

I also had my diet supplemented by the nutritious Mad Magazine.

Mike C. said...


Yes, this only serves to deepen my suspicions about the alien nature of avocados: they instil an unquestioning urge to propagate the damn things in the minds of their consumers...

A few of us on Earth were chosen to resist this triffid invasion, and the day may yet come when we have to take the fight to the avocado!


Zouk Delors said...

"take the fight to the avocado"

Such a war can never be won! The acolytes of the avocado are legion! Nevertheless, we shall, in victory, be merciful, magnanimous: despite your vile calumny against the divine fruit, there will be no cruel punishments, only re-education.

You will learn how, to the primitive tongue, mayonnaise can be a more palatable adjunct to the avocado than the connoisseur's more challenging vinaigrette (suffused with crushed garlic, ideally). Perhaps in your case we will start with salad cream. And if you really can't get over the putrescence thing (btw, it's the flesh whose colour characterised Armitage Shanks' avocado range, not the skin), a blindfold.

Fact: the word avocado is not, as I had aways imagined, Spanish for barrister; it derives ultimately from the Aztec, ahuacatl. There, doesn't it sound tastier already?

PS Have you tried guacamole?

eeyorn said...

Never mind whether it tasted disgusting the first you tried it. If you're into healthy eating, avocados come highly recommended. Particularly good for the joints, I believe. Having cared for Dad and seen him suffering with chronic arthritis I'd seriously suggest you accept Zouk's kind offer and enjoy his wonderful Culinatherapy course.

zythophile said...

Even more fact: the Aztec word ahuacatl means "testicle". I bet you're even more glad you've never eaten one.

I know a woman who is allergic to avocadoes: they have the same effect on her as drinking half a bottle of gin.

Martyn Cornell