Creativity is a marvel. Manifested in works of countless musicians, painters, writers, etc., individual artistry is our constant inspiration. Besides the personal creations by tens of thousands throughout the history of mankind, we also benefit from products collectively created by cultural units. Science, too, is a marvel: sometimes igniting creativity, other times becoming the culmination of innovation. Science and creativity are tightly intertwined, thrusting the inquisitive approach to life. What good is science if it blocks creation? How can a creation be of value if it rejects science? Their mutual dependency is a propelling force in the culinary world, in which guacamole is an epitome.
A deconstruction is a retrospective viewing. Being creative inherently builds, while a scientific approach seeks to deconstruct what has been built, validating and enhancing the creation through exposing its beauty and subsequently underscoring its qualities. Deconstructing a guacamole is in part my modest attempt to express admiration for the people to whom we attribute the creation of the most popular avocado dish in the Western Hemisphere. Although there are various traditional guacamole variations, purity and respect deserve consideration in its preparation. Hence, this deconstruction is also intended to call attention to the perils of taking food and our palate for granted.
Nahuatl is the language of the Mexican Aztecs, known as the Nahua people. Today, about 1.5 Million individuals speak Nahuatl, but throughout the world, we all use their language, whenever we say Tomato, Coyote, Cacao, Chocolate, Chili and Aguacate (anglicized to Avocado).
The Persea Americana tree bears the avocado berry in pairs, giving reason to its name, meaning testicles. Prehistoric giant mammals are believed to have eaten them directly from these tall trees, contributing to a natural cultivation, as they discharged the digested seeds elsewhere. The spreading of avocado trees might have then continued with the help of large cats that also ate the fruit, before its human cultivation began in Central America, as early as nine centuries ago.
In the turn of the twenty-first century, our times are speedy times. Life in the last one-hundred years consists generally of activities that are being executed twenty, fifty, a hundred times faster than in any previous century. Our fire is not hotter and human pregnancy not shorter, but every second and every year, humans achieve more and faster. Oddly enough, though, lack of time is a common claim. Somewhat contradictorily, time perception has changed. While in earlier civilizations humans did less within a day, their need for food preservation was greater. I gather that this could be a reason why lemon became a guacamole ingredient. However, the simplest home experiment shows that the acidity of a citrus fruit will not prevent an avocado exposed to oxygen from turning brown. An untreated avocado could resist oxidation better and longer than when treated with lemon, lime or other acids. In its fresh state, its oil preserves it naturally, as fat functions like a seal against oxygen. Like coconuts and olives, the avocado is uniquely high in natural fat content, while most fruits consist of water and sugar. Such high fat and low sugar content place it in the realm of savory foods.
The world of recipes is wild. Any given recipe is the unfinished result of experience, knowledge, culture and personal taste. This accounts for the countless variations that exist for a singular dish. Principally, guacamole calls for the use of avocados, spicy peppers and tomatoes. The palate does rejoice in this simplicity. Yet, the creative scientist in me and a curious palate call for possible enhancements. After all, guacamole is a food group, not a single dish.
Growing up in a Cuban-Puerto Rican household, my palate has been acquiring the avocado taste for over five decades, thus nothing exotic, but the understanding of a taste found in one’s own backyard, easily obtainable by shaking a tree, climbing it or merely by collecting the least battered fruits scattered about its tree. My avocado taste preference calls for a guacamole with tomato, red onion, cilantro, garlic, cumin, lime and serrano pepper.
A careful guacamole preparation and attention while eating it, contribute to the most natural and genuine ways to deconstruct this culinary masterpiece. With this goal in mind:
- Do concentrate and dedicate yourself to the preparation. This is crucial.
- Use a wooden spoon. Metals speed up the oxidation process. For the same reason, avoid using a metal bowl for mixing.
- Work the avocado last, reducing its exposure to oxygen.
- Allow the avocado taste to prevail. It should not be overshadowed by spices and other flavors. Go light on garlic, cumin or any other strong flavors.
- Mind the texture during the preparation. Avoid ingredients high on liquid content. Guacamole is buttery and chunky, not a watery sauce. (A mashed, wetter consistency is referred to as Aguacamole.)
- Mind the texture as you eat it. Chew attentively and extensively. Beware that only a lengthy mastication of the avocado will allow its taste to be fully released. This is how the taste buds are able to communicate the tasting experience to the brain, and only then we ‘understand’ taste.
- Eat only at room temperature. Coldness diminishes the gustatory experience, as cold fats do not stimulate the taste buds.
- Choose ripe avocados and ripe tomatoes to ensure a developed, richer taste.
- To obtain the most pleasure possible, use only fresh ingredients and avoid making too much guacamole. This will prevent the deterioration that is bound to occur through storage.
After a conversation, during which an Italian guest and I developed an instant mutual fondness, I offered him some mozzarella from Tonjes Farm, sprinkled with my infused olive oil from Napa Valley Naturals. Because he seemed highly impressed, I gave him a sample of my pesto as well. Critically, he smelled it, tasted it, and proceeded to share his judgment on it. “The aroma is important”, he said. “This basil is wonderful and fresh”. Then he continued… “Did you remove the garlic’s heart?” He was not sure if I would understand what he meant with ‘heart’. Slightly embarrassed about having been caught, I informed him that during my years in Europe, I had become familiar with this procedure, but – for no concrete reason – as a chef in New York, had been using the entire cloves. In typically passionate Italian fashion, he alluded to the pleasant taste of garlic when the heart has been removed, and how harsh and bitter it is otherwise. Throughout the world wide web, one finds dozens of threads where both opposing camps profess to be right: one claims the importance of removing the shoot found in the center of each clove, while the other vehemently criticizes the procedure as totally irrelevant. Myself, I will proceed to remove it.
In a wooden or stone mortar, grind ½ tsp of cumin seeds very fine. Once it is fine enough, add one heartless garlic clove, some salt, and create a paste. Take half of a Serrano pepper, remove the seeds and white membranes, and chop it fine. After cutting two Roma tomatoes in small to medium sized chunks, discard of the excessive fluid with the help of a sieve. Chop half a red onion fairly small. Take cilantro leaves without the stem and mince them, using about one tablespoon. Add 1-2 tablespoons of lime juice. Mix all the ingredients well with a wooden spoon. Cut four avocados in quarters, peel them and integrate them with the previous mixture by folding them repeatedly, until the avocado flesh becomes chunky.
Why do we eat?
Please, begin eating this guacamole by considering the value of how you will eat it. Eating is inherently human, but it requires our undivided attention, and our approach to it must be wiser than merely following rules and diets focusing on the value of scientific knowledge for physical health. The activity of eating is not primarily about the subsiding of hunger. Consider the thousands of products provided by nature and the myriads of taste profiles they naturally impart, long before being prepared or processed by the human hand. Consider furthermore the thousands of taste buds that inform our brain on the differences between various waters, banana, potato and apple types, grains and nuts. This realm of the palate experience convinces me that eating is primarily about the gustatory experience and oral perception, only in second instance about subsiding hunger.
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) and Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804-1872) famously warned us: “We are what we eat”. Today we ought to be more precise.
Chewing food is a simple task, consisting of basic mechanics, but its function is complex and its role crucial. Still, we commonly opt for using water and other fluids to literally wash down a complete meal, thus avoiding the long chewing process required for a healthy digestion, greater assimilation and otherwise hidden pleasures. The mastication process triggers glands into producing saliva containing necessary enzymes to prepare the food for its further digestive phase in the stomach. Before reaching the intestines, food needs to be broken down and moistened, in order for its nutrients to be released and properly absorbed. Beyond its contribution to physical health, the proper amount of chewing provides mental health and a happy soul.
Mastication also stimulates a pair of horseshoe formations in the brain, known as the hippocampus, and it is necessary to maintain its function. Hundreds of new neurons and brain cells are generated daily. If they survive, they will help the hippocampus grow. A balanced nutrition, plenty of oxygen, regular exercise and mental stimulation (like the challenges of learning a new language) will enable their survival, as well as avocado, olive oil, nuts and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. On the other hand, stress, obesity and junk food will easily contribute to the shrinking of the hippocampus. This important brain part is responsible for memory storage, hence our sense of taste is highly dependable on it, as it is memory recollection what enables us to recognize taste profiles, be it for the sake of pleasure or avoiding risks in our pursuit for preservation.
Tasting is key. With an anxiety for being politically correct, the global citizen will address world hunger. Indeed, we should manage a fair food distribution worldwide, and, yes, physical nutrition is indispensable, existential, and food intake achieves this best. However, a memorable experience does not come from a filled stomach, rather from what happens to our palate and our surroundings while we eat. A climax is not reached through creativity and science, but by experiencing the marvel of joy they bring. Thorough food assimilation takes place when we allocate for the needed eating time, creating an experience that, beyond being a physical activity, becomes a metaphysical joy.
Because time is ours to time, we are how we eat.
Serious Eats – J. Kenji López-Alt