A Grand Unified Theory of Avocado Toast
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
This article was originally written by Nathan Heller of The New Yorker. Find the original article here.
In this age of American division, few insults cut as much as the idea that your fortune may be hostage to the menu price of avocados. This past May, the Australian luxury developer Tim Gurner made international news by saying that millennials could not own property due to their overindulgence in avocado toast. “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for nineteen dollars and four coffees at four dollars each,” he told Australian “60 Minutes.” Gurner is a fast-rising real-estate millionaire, yet he was widely criticized for knowing naught of which he spoke. “It would take a lot of skipped avocados to put a dent in the heavy costs of homeownership,” the Times pointed out in a double-bylined, eight-hundred-word piece, “Fact-Checking a Mogul’s Claims About Avocado Toast, Millennials and Home Buying.” Time magazine did some elaborate napkin math: “If avocado toast costs around $8 a serving, you’d have to skip approximately 4,900 of those beloved toasts to afford that new home.” And that was for just a $39,300 down payment—a song in cities where the toast is craved.
Several avocado-ripening cycles on, the subject has not dropped. Recently, the online lender SoFi (that’s for “social finance,” a phrase once used to denote virtuous endeavors such as impact investing) promised a month of complimentary toast to customers who bought a house. “Buy a home using a SoFi mortgage, and you’ll receive an email asking whether you want regular or gluten-free bread,” the company advised. “Avocados and bread will then arrive in a series of three shipments—though you’ll still need to toast the bread yourself to get the full experience.”
To those who would suggest that buying a home for “the full experience” of avocados and bread is a bit like buying a baseball team to get the window decal, one can only say: more toast for me. The dish, in recent years, has gained an outsized following in the U.S. Although no hard statistics exist, one ventures that its popularity approaches that of standard sandwiches in many urban settings. The toast has a lot of variations but its basics are simple: an avocado is mushed, with salt, on bread. There is no trick. It’s puzzling that so many people seem to want leave their homes or offices to eat this food in public. What’s so winning about a flattened avocado offered at a manageable yet also totally exorbitant price? Why are many of the best among us in its thrall?
I grew up in coastal California, the proud heart of the avocado belt. Yet I had never heard of avocado toast before coming to New York, which seemed odd, since New York avocados are mostly disgusting—small, starchy, and at once underripe and bruised. The toast, at first, felt of a piece with the same Gotham masochism that makes New Yorkers pay three-quarters of their income for hutch-like apartments and relish walks on trash-walled streets. I shrugged it off. Then, a few years ago, I started noticing acquaintances proposing avocado toast instead of lunch. (“Let’s get lunch soon!” is the traditional way to issue a hard goodbye in this city; one imagines it being shouted into six-foot trenches.) At that moment, I joined the frenzy. “We should get avocado toast,” I began announcing to friends and their dogs on the street. I found myself portentously signing e-mails “Avocado toast soon,” like a crazed man with a sandwich board foretelling the apocalypse.
Biddable urban people have had many culinary fixations over the years: bran, goji berries, boba, or those burgers with the mournful lettuce buns. Few people have suggested that any of these are stifling the middle class. Something about avocado toast taps into a deeper sense of where the world is headed, and—depending on your view of that future—is either scrumptious or abhorrent. Why? Even at a time when fancy sandwich stuffs are imbued with social symbolism, avocado toast remains a cultural cipher, a new lunchtime icon with a hazy past.
A sophisticated friend of mine reported that she first recalled seeing New York avocado toast among the “fashion Australians” of Nolita, so, on a recent Wednesday, in the spirit of discovery, I stopped off at Ruby’s Café, a long-standing Down Under eatery on the block of Mulberry Street known as Little Australia. When Ruby’s first opened, in 2003, “avo toast” was on the menu. This was, I felt, suggestive, since Tim Gurner is Australian, too. “It’s our bread and butter,” the executive chef, Thomas Lim, told me. He added, meditatively, “Avocado toast is the same thing—a fat that you spread on toast.”
It was a warm, breezy afternoon, and the front of the restaurant was open to the street, revealing shiftless young people inside devouring salad and toast. Lim and I took an open seat on a bench outside, facing the sidewalk. He was tall and clean-shaven, with a crest of impeccably slicked-back hair. He wore a tight white T-shirt with a cream-colored sweatshirt around the shoulders and white clogs stylishly scuffed to gray. His arms bore many small tattoos. He told me that one cluster, on his tricep, was a deconstructed shrimp cocktail—it included small crustaceans, a Martini glass, and something that resembled a fragment of lemon. “I have a friend who’s a tattoo artist, and whenever I sit down with him we’ll just freestyle,” Lim told me. “I regret some of them.” He considered. “No, I regret all of them,” he said.
Behind us, in the restaurant’s bared façade, a couple who might have met on a photo shoot fingered their flat whites and gazed amiably into each other’s teeth. Ruby’s recently expanded into an adjacent property, but, even in the middle afternoon, it was packed. “To work in hospitality you have to be quite sick in the head, because the hours are atrocious and there’s no social life,” Lim said. He smiled.
When Lim arrived from Australia, seven years ago, he had been surprised at the state of avocado toast in New York—not because it was popular but because it was treated as a novelty. He had always eaten it for breakfast. “As long as I can remember, for myself and all the friends I grew up with, it was one of those staples,” he said. “There are two things you have in the morning on toast. You have Vegemite on toast, or you have avocado on toast. Sometimes you have Vegemite and avocado on toast.” The idea of avocado toast being a trend—or a fad soon to play out—struck him as bizarre. “It’s one of those things people always want and need,” he said. Ruby’s recipe is simple: grilled and buttered sourdough, mashed avocado, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, chili flakes, hemp seeds, and tomatoes in the summer. Still, it has had traction: in addition to helping oversee Ruby’s expansion in New York and Los Angeles (forthcoming), Lim oversees a handful of sister restaurants, including Goldie’s and the Eveleigh, in L.A., and Dudley’s, on the Lower East Side. All feature avocado toast on their menus.
Taking Ruby’s as an early vector of Stateside avocado toast, a certain narrative emerges. The ascent began, say, in Nolita and SoHo, a district filled with well-travelled, fashion-adjacent people who could spread the good news. Avocado toast, in turn, was a fashion-friendly food: small, nourishing, refined, easy to share, customizable. It could be eaten in prim fashion, with a fork and knife. It could be consumed with the hands, without drippings or squirts. Carbohydrate-phobic diners could eat the avocado off the bread without looking demented. The toast stays simple enough to be calorie-countable, or to be ordered by special request in unknown lands. And, avocados being what they are, it’s guaranteed fresh: an avocado mash laid to rest for an hour is visibly the worse for wear. In this respect, it is the ultimate cosmopolitan food, a dish for familiar pursuits in unfamiliar settings. That it seems to have arrived in the U.S. from a kindred nation only makes its urban transfer, all along the long-haul air routes of the world, apt.
For decades, however, avocados were the opposite of ubiquitous, due to reasons rising from the fruit’s elusive virtue: ripeness. Most specimens at the market feel like Major League baseballs. A few—traps for the unenlightened—will seem soft already, but you know to let those go. You settle on the better choice: a fruit not quite soft but with a telling give in its flesh. You purchase the thing and, with some smugness, take it home. You wait a day. You open it. You’ve chosen badly.
Avocados officially entered the United States in 1833, from Mexico, to which they’re native. And yet, for decades after that, their fickleness and fragility as produce limited their reach. (When so-called conquistadors sought to bring avocados back to Spain, in the sixteenth century, they shipped the trees.) Agricultural cultivation in the U.S. was limited to states with subtropical climates—California, Florida, Hawaii—though it grew prolific where it rooted. Every Hass avocado purportedly descends from a single California tree, which lived from 1926 to 2002. It had been planted by Rudolph Hass, a mailman who lived in a suburb of Los Angeles. Today, his avocados are said to make up between eighty and ninety-five per cent of California’s yearly crop. That is a lot of avocados: California has the largest output in the country.
It isn’t, though, the largest output in the world. Mexico remains the globe’s greatest grower and exporter, although, for years, that was not clear from produce sections in the U.S. In 1914, Mexican avocados were banned as imports to the United States. (They were supposedly vectors for fruit flies.) The prohibition was lifted for parts of the country, including New York, in 1997, and was fully rolled back in 2007. Today, nine out of ten imported avocados in the U.S. are from Mexico.
The change resulted from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Their effects on the consumer avocado market were profound: from the mid-nineties through 2014, the United States’ avocado consumption nearly quadrupled. Average consumption rose from less than two pounds per person per year to about seven. In the nineties, the United States was producing more than eighty per cent of the avocados that it ate. More recently, it has grown fewer than twenty per cent. The twenty-first-century explosion of avocado smoothies, avocado ice cream, avocado life, in other words, is not in your imagination. It reflects a foreign influx of the fruit, mostly made possible by nafta.
A politics of avocadoism is intrinsic to this history. If you worry about the eclipse of American agriculture—or the market effects of cheap, distance-shipped produce—you’d be right to regard this international trade with disgust. Rising water and labor prices in California (including, some say, the spectre of an increasing minimum wage) have handicapped its avocado-growing. If, on the other hand, you celebrate competitive international trade and cosmopolitan access, the avocado is a fruit of heroism. Like apples, lettuce, or the music of Sting, avocados have attained international status. When, earlier this year, President Trump proposed rolling back nafta and imposing new tariffs on Mexican produce, at least one Mexican avocado farmer remained sanguine. “There is nowhere else in the world that could provide the quantity of avocados that U.S. markets are consuming,” he told Reuters. The global progress incarnate in avocado toast is tricky to reverse, even when prices run high.
And yet it is this cosmopolitan transit—the sharing of tastes and expectations across a single world, from Down Under to Dumbo—that the enemies of avocado toast seek to quash. Problems arise as the world’s variety blurs toward a vast consumer mainstream: lattes in every café, Adidas workout pants on every subway car. But there’s refreshing opportunity for generative collaboration, too. Jet-lagged in London, a few weeks ago, I dipped into a café for lunch. The menu included a ragù (too much for my displaced stomach), some inscrutable sandwiches (probably containing mayonnaise and raisins), and then, on the specials board, “smashed avo on toast.” The dish had a regional flourish: rocket, feta, and a cocktail-like wedge of lime. It looked delicious. I ordered it, ate it, and went to do my business in a city that was not my own. It felt like home.