The Food SnoopBy Masha Gutkin
TIJUANA HAS THIS place called, maybe, Caesar's Palace where, some guidebook touts, the Caesar salad was invented. The other night when I was there, it was late and still hot and bizarre as always, I guess, in a town I'd liken to a colonial Las Vegas if I'd ever even been there. My companion and I sat outdoors, cross-dressed as each other, savoring margaritas and Mexicalis with Mexican lime. The Caesar salad was good, I'll allow; made on a wooden rolley-cart by a friendly, mustachioed fellow who pummeled the garlic with mortar and pestle before our very eyes and scooped out the coddled egg with an obsequious flourish like we were the Hollywood stars the meal was made to please. He said we looked the part, which maybe added to the flavor, as did the crazy jalopies tricked out to ride just on their front wheels with the back ones thumbing the air like trained acrobats roaring by us on the avenida.
In spite of the salad hullabaloo, it was the side of shrimp cocktail we ordered that really got my attention. The salsa was good tomatoey and cilantroey and the shrimp were fat, pink, and tasty. But the star was avocado: long, even, firm, and unblemished slices of that green and sumptuous treat, hanging off the side of the cocktail glass in the modestly inviting yet splendiferous way that only that fruit can manage. Like an Edenic garland. Makes one think the whole fable of the fall ought to be reset from Mesopotamia to Mexico. Perhaps an avocado's leaf doesn't do coverage as much justice as that of the fig, but it's a fruit to fall for, over and over again.
Since my avocado love affair is raging, I fear my grocer, a polite and enigmatic man, thinks I've fallen prey to some disorder or demented diet dreck that dictates consumption of only the ovoid and green. Day after day I stand at the outdoor bins, hungrily prospecting for Hass to devour by the spoonful as soon as I've bolted the door to my apartment, quartered a Mexican lime, and cracked a Corona.
I halve one, lengthwise, slide half onto a plate equipped with a small spoon and lime wedges. Mexican lime, mind you. Salt mill at hand? Check. Corona with lime shoved down its throat at the ready? Check. Lime and salt the buttery berry (for an avocado is a berry) like it's my last supper and take the green cream plunge. I can't eat just one.
A brief but critical digression: You've heard of the owl and the pussycat and their beautiful pea-green boat? It wouldn't be the same poem if the owl had set sail with an osprey, or a badger, say. The avocado's soul mate is citrus aurantifolia, the Mexican lime (a.k.a. the Key lime, as in Key lime pie). I can't even believe how much of my life was spent in ignorance of this, the true lime. Now I've tasted the acid; I'm spreading the gospel and making up for lost flavor. In produce markets (especially in the Mission) you might find these little pretties near their cousins, the Persian limes most of us know well. Persian limes are twice the size of Mexican limes, but exponentially inferior in flavor. Mexican limes are bracingly pungent and aromatic qualities that seem to reside mostly in the oils of the peel, though I haven't uncovered what terpenes (hydrocarbon compounds that make flavors and aromas of certain substances like essential oils distinct) provide the pleasing particularity. Perhaps it's that citrus aurantifolia is full strength. Our common Persian lime, citrus lantifolia, is likely a cross between the true lime and the citron. And the lower acidity of its hybrid nature just doesn't cut it here. An avocado can be up to 30 percent fat, most of it the good, monounsaturated, kind. The royally oily avocado likes the lime to bite it good and proper.
Though the Mexican lime did not actually originate in Mexico (maybe Malaysia), the avocado likely did. The California Avocado Commission says wretchedly that the avocado's "alluring shape certainly mimics the soft curves of a woman." It fails to mention that the avocado's original, Aztec name ahuacatl translates to testicle. Rumor has it the Aztecs thought the fruit a sexual stimulant, an attribute accorded to many nutrient-rich foods the world over. These days California is the world's second-largest producer of avocados (after Mexico). Though literally thousands of varieties exist (each time you plant a seed a new variety is born), California is the land of Hass ("the only year-round avocado," as the Commission terms this breed).
Here's a little epiphany I had about why the avocado wouldn't do for the tree of knowledge. The avocado is a "climacteric" fruit which means it ripens off the tree. In fact, it doesn't ripen till it's off the tree, and then it takes a week, sometimes, and maybe more, to get to luscious. Can you imagine telling Eve she'd have to curb her appetite and wait? No one would be left to tell the tale.