A Giant Sloth’s Treat that Became a Super Bowl Celebrity

From prehistoric plains to modern-day plates, the avocado has been reshaped by cultures, commerce and one curious postman.

by John Paap

Deep in the plains of Mesoamerica, a lestodan is roaming. The monster 15-foot sloth is hungry but doesn’t want the usual grass and foliage typically on the menu. No, today it wants a delicious, fat-filled treat. Finally, it spots a tree that is full of dangling, dark, black-skinned fruits. When it reaches the tree, it stands on its hind legs and wraps its mouth around one of the fruits. The fruit is creamy, slightly nutty with earthy grassy undertones. The lestodan grabs a few more bites and moves on. Little does it know that by enjoying this fruit and, later, excreting the mega-sized seeds miles away from the parent tree, it is contributing to the expansion and longevity of this special tree.

You may be wondering, “Why haven’t I heard of a lestodan?” Well, about 4,200 years ago it disappeared, like many mega mammals from this period. Luckily for us, the tree fruit miraculously survived without its primary seed disperser. While the lestodan was the largest consumer and propagator, it wasn’t the only one consuming the fruit. Early humans were living alongside the lestodans and seemed to also enjoy this dark-skinned tree fruit. In fact, archeologists have found evidence of humans consuming this fruit almost 10,000 years ago in central Mexico and domesticating it as early as 5,000 years ago. The Aztecs called the fruit ahuacatl. Today, we call it avocado.

The avocado was more than just some fruit for Mesoamerican peoples. For the Aztecs, the avocado was a symbol for love and fertility and they believed that consuming the fruit would give them strength. For the Mayans, the importance of this fruit is exhibited in the 14th month of their calendar which is represented by the avocado glyph. There is even a sarcophagus of an ancient Mayan ruler which features illustrations of the avocado tree. As is the case with items that are highly revered, it is believed that the avocado was traded among various peoples across the Americas. Trade of the avocado would explain how this fruit reached all the way to Peru by the time the Spanish arrived in the New World in the 15th century.

Like the lestodans and Mesoamericans that encountered the fruit before them, the Spanish fell in love with the avocado and because of this the avocado tree began to spread further than ever before. The tree spread across the Spanish colonial empire and eventually to Europe in 1601. While the fruit was easy on the taste buds, the Spanish had difficulty pronouncing the Aztec name. To make it easier for Spanish speakers, they called the fruit aguacate. It’s from this word that we eventually got avocado in English. For the next few hundred years, the avocado would remain popular only in the Spanish colonies, where it was native.

Finally, in 1825, the avocado was introduced to the United States, but it still would not become well known until the 20th century. Growers were looking for the right variety that could expand beyond the traditional avocado-eating Southwest market. The first promising variety was Fuerte, a large, green, smooth-skinned variety that could survive a freeze and did so with great aplomb during the great freeze of 1913. Unfortunately, strength against freeze couldn’t make up for a short shelf-life and vulnerability to bruising. If avocados were to become a national staple, it would need to be “fuerte” in other departments. In 1926, prayers were answered by a United States postal worker. A variety discovered out of sheer luck and curiosity would set this buttery fruit on a path to celebrity status.

In 1925, Rudolph was a postman from La Habra Heights, California, making just 25 cents an hour, when he came across an illustration in a magazine of an avocado tree with dollar bills hanging from it. Seemingly inspired by this advertisement, Rudolph used all his money, and a loan from his sister, to buy an acre and a half avocado grove. Unsurprisingly, most of the trees on the grove were of the Fuerte variety. With little money left to spend, Rudolph could not buy new trees so he decided to cut down many of the old trees and grow his own seedlings which he could then graft to the Fuerte trees.

According to his son, Rudolph “purchased many Guatemalan seeds from a nursery” in Whittier, California. Overall, the exercise was a success and the seedlings successfully grafted to the Fuerte cuttings. However, one of the seedlings stubbornly refused to accept a graft. Rudolph wanted nothing to do with this resistor and asked his professional grafter to chop it down. Luckily, for all of us, the grafter convinced Rudolph to let the tree be. After all, it was still a strong tree and who knows? Maybe it will produce some interesting fruit.

Three years later the determined, anti-grafting seedling grew to 14 inches and began to produce fruit — at least two years earlier than Fuerte trees usually start bearing fruit. If that wasn’t odd enough, the fruit from this tree also looked completely different. Unlike the green, smooth-skinned Fuertes, this fruit was dark and bumpy. The different appearance didn’t stop Rudolph’s children from wanting to taste the unusual avocado. The children loved it. In fact, they preferred it over the Fuertes.

This new avocado, Rudolph would later explain, had a “butter consistency with no fiber and with excellent nutty flavor.” Beyond the richer taste, and perhaps most important for growers seeking an avocado revolution, this new avocado had a thicker skin allowing it to travel long distances without getting bruised. The Fuerte had been bested. In 1935, Rudolph patented the extraordinary avocado using his last name — Hass.

Even with the discovery of this superior avocado variety, suitable for transcontinental distribution, it would be another four decades before Hass would replace Fuerte as the leading California avocado variety. The avocado would have to battle its long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac and then the low-fat diet fad of the 1980s before rising to popularity in the 1990s.

Between savvy rebranding, marketing and education, the avocado became a celebrity fruit across America and eventually the world. What started as a treat for mega sloths has become the fruit of the Super Bowl and an $18 billion market. Apparently, good things do come to those who wait — even if it is several thousands of years.

  • John Paap is the Sustainability and Brand Marketing Manager at Jac. Vandenberg, Inc. and co-host of the “History of Fresh Produce” series on The Produce Industry Podcast.