What’s round, green, spread on toast, and has almost 600,000 tagged posts on Instagram? It’s arguably more satisfying than guacamole, the food’s messier, rowdier cousin guacamole. It’s a non-recipe recipe, so stupidly simple it begs the question: what’s the big deal about some mushed-up green stuff on focaccia?
For many, avocado toast is the perfect balance between nutrition and indulgence; it’s good, it’s healthy, it’s satisfying, and it photographs well with a faux marble background. Deemed “nature’s butter,” the low-in-labor, high-in-demand fruit has captured the hearts of Instagrammers and serious food writers alike; all you have to do is add some fresh lemon and you have yourself a meal. It’s an iconic food trend that has come to define a generation, but it now represents something beyond brunch.
The avocado toast trend isn’t a new American phenomenon; in fact, it’s been around for over 130 years, beginning—where else?—in San Francisco. Before Gwyneth Paltrow could dazzle us with her deliciously pretentious recipe (which prompts the use of Turkish Marash chili, Armenian cucumbers, and Chinese Meyer lemons) on her lifestyle blog, GOOP, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a recipe in the April 8, 1927 of “Belle DeGraf’s Helpful Suggestions for the Housewife” column, stating in the sub-heading, “There are numerous attractive ways to prepare Alligator Pears.”
The recipe also advises avocado junkies to “Try mashing the flesh of the avocado and beating it together with a few spoonfuls of lemon juice.” Aggressive, maybe, but it achieves the task at hand.
Alligator pears and flesh-beating aside, we can thank Australians for modern iterations of the delectable spread. According to The Washington Post, it was Australian chef Bill Granger who served the toast in his stylish cafe, bills, in the 1990s. The trend originated in the 1970s with posh Australians in Queensland and it quickly spread across the mainland. Apparently, Aussies love to pile loads of stuff—tomatoes, cheese, maybe even Vegemite—on crispy toast.
(Never mind the fact that people in Mexico and Chile have eaten the fruit on tortillas and toast for much longer than their European counterparts; here, we’re talking about the stuff white yuppie food dreams are made of.)
Members of the commonwealth acknowledge British columnist Nigel Slater’s 1999 avocado bruschetta recipe in The Guardian, as the trendsetter, but New Yorkers look to Manhattan’s Cafe Gitane as the driving force behind the trend. Their version of avocado toast introduced a red chili flake topping with olive oil on seven-grain bread—carbohydrates so complex you won’t know what hit you. From NYC’s five Burroughs to small town lunch spots, Cafe Gitane is the real MVP of avocado toast—the beacon of the trend as we Americans know it, in all its glossy-green glory.
The snack appeared on the cafe’s menu between 2000 and 2005, but reached its peak in 2014, a year after Gwyneth Paltrow released her 2013 cookbook It’s All Good.
That’s right; it all comes back to Gwyneth.
In her book, she describes her recipe as “the holy trinity of Vegenaise, avocado and salt that makes this like a favorite pair of jeans — so reliable and easy and always just what you want,” and like the fairy godmother of Brooklyn farmer’s markets everywhere, the trend went viral on social media.
The following year, Bon Appétit magazine published a recipe titled “Your New Avocado Toast,” and a meme of a young Meryl Streep photoshopped on top of the concoction followed suit on the tasteofstreep Instagram page. Avocado toast became another lifestyle motif for young urbanites, but it began to represent something more than toast.
Food trends—particularly millennial food trends—aren’t really about food; they reflect inter-generational anxieties and stereotypes. The New Yorker‘s Hannah Goldfield analyzed the meal through food-trend writer David Sax. According to him, she states, “The most successful food trends reflect what’s going on in society at a given time. Americans wanted cupcakes ten years ago…because they sought childhood comforts after the trauma of 9/11; Americans wanted fondue in the sixties because they aspired to cosmopolitanism. Artisanal toast, one might posit, represents our intensifying obsession with and fetishization of food. Every meal is special and important, every dish should be elevated, revered, and broadcast—even something as pedestrian as toast.”
As silly as it sounds, avocado toast became a unifier between something “as pedestrian as toast” with something excessive, which, if you think about it, is the perfect characterization of millennials—we’re always teetering between visual pragmatism (re: minimalism) and aesthetic excess. We want the sleek, Scandinavian lifestyle, but we want baroque architecture and gaudy nail art, too. We want to reconcile these differences by holding on to nostalgia while simultaneously moving forward—a generation stuck in aesthetic limbo, holding on to any and every identity and fad we come across. We want to have our slice of avocado toast and eat it, too.
Sometimes we want to go on rants about human rights practices and Marx and Engels and Debord; sometimes we want to play with fidget spinners and watch Downton Abbey reruns, relishing in our petite bourgeois misery.
And isn’t there something innately bourgeois about spreading some fruity fat on a piece of bread? It evokes all of the negative images we associate with privileged millennials: young, white, successful hipsters brunching in gentrified neighborhoods, blissfully unaware of their supposed self-absorption. Was it Marie Antoinette who said “Let them eat avocado toast” or was that a GOOP blog post?
Ever since avocado toast gained notoriety through social media, every ridiculous iteration—you can thank Australians yet again for this shameful creation of a hollowed-out avocado filled to the brim with a latte, an “avolatte”—brings images of lazy millennials taking selfies and bathing in tubs of green—avocado, that is, not money; many millennials have very little of that.
It’s this contradiction, this pivot point, that truly characterizes most contemporary food trends. Somehow, millennials have to face the brunt of scrutiny for every social media trend. Just this year, a 35-year-old Australian developer attacked his own generation—and his own avocado-loving countrymen—for our lack of real estate.
“When I was trying to buy my first home I wasn’t buying smashed avocados for 19 bucks and four coffees at $4 each,” he said in an interview with Australia’s 60 Minutes. He fails to see that we’re up to our ears in student debt, that half of us are likely to be replaced by robots in the workplace, and that we have to spend more money than our parents or grandparents.
According to Forbes, students in 2015 graduated with debt ranging from $3,000 to $53,000. On average, 200 of those schools the students graduated from reported an average debt of $35,000 per student. Bankrate.com reported that millennials spend an average of $2,300 more per year than older generations do on gas, groceries and bills—and no, we don’t spend our meager wages on toast.
Oh, and the Australian Financial Review found that he’s worth an estimated $460 million. If only I didn’t spend all of my money on lattes and brunch, then I, too would be a millionaire by age 35—because, you know, that’s just how life works.
While the man’s comments are nothing short of egregious (some millennials might simply refer to him as “the literal worst”), I understand the seductive quality of critiquing your own kind. After all, brunch, universally known as the most obnoxious meal of the day, has peaked with my generation, and, much like an avolatte, these distractions have filled the hollowed void within us. Because instead of enjoying eggs and toast at home, we queue around the block of some pretentious restaurant, hoping they don’t run out of bottomless mimosas and French brioche.
As for the avocado toast trend, it’s a bit cliché to scapegoat millennials for every food trend that goes viral. Blame Australia. Blame Gwyneth Paltrow; just don’t blame us.