“THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS OF MILLENNIAL BRUNCH”
Avocados are native to the Americas, and their likely origin is in Central Mexico, where they were cultivated by pre-Columbian civilizations for nearly 9,000 years. An early form of guacamole was the most common Aztec avocado preparation, and it was so common that early Spanish settlers called it “mantequilla de pobre”, or the “butter of the poor.” While tortillas undoubtedly conveyed guacamole to Aztec mouths before Europeans appeared in the New World, when bread arrived in Mexico in the 1500s with the Spanish, could avocado toast be far behind?
Despite this long history, avocado toast was newly discovered as a “trend food” in the 2010s. Considered by the young to be healthy, somewhat sophisticated, and slightly indulgent, it could be made vegan and gluten free, in synch with food fads of the period. It became popular through social media. Mari Uyehara, a former senior editor at Saveur magazine, chronicled this history in an article titled “Who Really Invented Avocado Toast?” on Taste.com in 2018.
The debate over the invention sparked after Besha Rodell, a former restaurant critic for the LA Weekly and a native of Melbourne, Australia, mentioned on Eater that “Avocado toast is a 100% Australian invention.” The gauntlet was thrown down, and California writer John Birdsail, writing for Bon Appetit, picked it up. He conceded that there’s “little doubt that avocado toast – the Instagram kind – can trace its existence to Australia,” but he asserted that Los Angeles is “the place where avocado toast was actually born.” His proof was a 1920 recipe by Martin Fesler in San Gabriel’s Covina Argus that instructs the reader to mash avocado with a fork and spread it on a “small square of hot toast.” Uyehara calls that find “the Dead Sea Scrolls of millennial brunch.”
The avocado tree arrived in Australia around 1853, several years ahead of its arrival in California. While avocado trees reached Hawaii and Florida by 1833, they didn’t reach California until 1856. An 1882 dispatch from Jalisco to the Times Democrat of New Orleans reports that “the finest fruit in Mexico is …. the ahuacate…. Eaten raw, with bread and salt, one soon learns to like them.” The word ahuacate is derived from ahuactl, the Aztec word for testicle. Some theorize that they were considered a fertility fruit in the pre-Columbian world, but others think the name refers to the way they grow in pairs on trees. The California Avocado Association renamed them avocado in 1915 and recommended serving small squares of avocado toast as hors d’oeuvres. Avocado toast is documented in Brisbane, Australia by 1929. In 1937 a New Yorker article titled “Avocado, the Future of Eating” describes an avocado sandwich on whole wheat bread, and in 1960 a New York Times article showcased a toasted sandwich with avocado filling.
The Washington Post reports that Australian chef Bill Granger first put avocado toast on a modern café menu in 1993. He was 22 years old, had no professional culinary training, and Sydney landlords were reluctant to lease space for his new restaurant. The only lease he could get stipulated that his restaurant could only be open from 7:30am to 4pm, Monday through Saturday. He said he “had to make breakfast work” and looked for inspiration to American diners where food service was available all day. Lacking a cooking diploma, but eschewing American greasy spoon cuisine, his first menu featured simple, home cooked fare, including an offering of avocado quarters on sourdough bread dressed with lime juice, olive oil and cilantro. He launched a new type of Australian eatery.
Bill’s Restaurant was followed seventeen years later by Sqirl, a restaurant in Los Angeles open from 8am to 4pm daily. Its owner, a young American chef named Jessica Koslow, was an Angelino who had been to Melbourne and observed the new Australian café model. But she was professionally trained and her cheffed up recipe for avocado toast included ingredients like pickled carrot curls, garlic cream and sesame seeds. Healthy ingredients met sophisticated technique, and the internet was buzzing.
In 2016, avocado smashed on toast again became a flashpoint when columnist Bernard Salt in The Australian described seeing “young people order smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five grain bread at $22 a pop and more” when they should have been saving to buy a house instead. Tim Gurner, a 35 year old property developer, crunched the numbers and replied that millennials should not refrain from avocado toast and $4 lattes in pursuit of home ownership. Calculating savings from the toast, he determined it would take over 500 years to save for a house at then current market rates.