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The avocado is overcado: how #eatclean turned it into a cliche

The history of the avocado and the modern history of popular culture are basically one and the same. I mean, no offence to Stephen Hawking, I’m sure black holes are also a big deal in their own way but, if you really want to get to grips with the meaning of modern life, look no further than the avocado. Or – to give it its most up-to-date name – the overcado.

The news that the avocado is in crisis – an unwitting scalp of the great #eatclean debacle, a healthy eating movement which now looks like the biggest self-serving scam since someone invented investment banking – hits at the very heart of who we are as a society. The glorious rise and tragic fall of avocado on toast has been written about at way too much length to recap here, but suffice to say that, in Japan, McDonald’s now has an English-muffin version on its breakfast menu. It is still on every fashionable cafe menu, but it is now basic. Basic in the Kate-Moss-Easyjet sense of the word, meaning that it aspires to values that are now too generic to be aspirational.

The avocado toast phenomenon has become the bane of ‘clean eating’. Photograph: Getty Images/Aurora Open/Ben Rosenzweig

Last year, 4bn avocados were consumed in the US, four times the number at the beginning of this century. That’s a whole lot of people out there still Instagramming their brunch and not realising that the spirit of Kate Moss is watching and laughing. And then I saw Hotel Transylvania 2 the other day – it’s so important, so spiritually nourishing, to make the time to stay connected to key cultural moments, don’t you find? – and one of those intergenerational jokes that they sprinkle in to keep the parents conscious was about avocado. The grumpy vampire grandad makes a joke about how his daughter, a Kristen Stewart badass turned new mum, wants him to feed the baby avocado. “Apparently it’s good fat!” he says with comedic exasperation. Yup, not just eating avocado but being ironic and knowing about avocado has reached the 11am screening.

The rise of the avocado is the story of the Californication of our culture. In the 1920s, the fruit – already an early example of rebranding, having floundered under the unappetising early moniker of “alligator pear” – began to appear in elegant recipes in Vogue and the New Yorker. Avocado stuffed with lobster, say, or avocado and grapefruit salad. When I was watching teen movies in the 1980s, guacamole – a murky brown squelch, surely by far the least visually appetising of all the avocado’s “looks” through the decades – nonetheless benefited from a frisson of American glamour. Like baseball jackets, or school hallways with lockers in them, or double-fridges filled with pitchers of lurid OJ. Avocado came sliced with tomato and mozzarella on long, white serving platters in expense-account-type restaurants; in the mainstream it replaced the lettuce and tomato in a BLT.

But then the avocado and the kiwi fruit, once both equally sophisticated, took opposing trajectories. In the late 20th century, a glossy-magazine version of aspirational health went something like this: first you lie in a fluffy, white bathrobe with your hair in a towel, with mashed avocado on your skin as a “natural face mask” and cucumber slices on your eyes, and then you go out for brunch – eggs benedict, probably a buck’s fizz, and then a salad with slices of kiwi fruit. Twenty years later, there’s no lolling about in bathrobes, just leggings with names such as Sweaty Betty, and you only get to stay still in plank and downward dog and then your me-time treat is avocado and a flat white. Gorgeousness is much more hard work these days. Only the poached egg remains above the vagaries of fashion.

‘Avocado as a shade of green never shook off its 70s-bathroom-suite associations.’ Photograph: Alamy

Even when modern avo-fever was at its height, the colour never made it on to the catwalk. Avocado as a shade of green rather than a food never got glamorous – it never shook off its 70s-bathroom-suite associations. The Pantone charts of today are all moody leaden greys, chalky whites, cerulean blues. Every other shade of green – apple, chartreuse, emerald, jade, even school-uniform-bottle – has had its day in the fashion-week sun; colours that sat alongside avocado on the Pantone charts of the 70s – Harvest Gold, Carafe – now dominate upscale department stores as that decade’s revival hits shops. But avocado is nowhere to be seen. A fall from grace this spectacular can mean only one thing: is it time for the #avocomeback yet?

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