Karsten Moran / The New York Times

May 29, 2020

Food Ethics | Ethiopian Avocados

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During my six-month sojourn in Ethiopia, I had the joy of working with an nongovernmental organization (NGO) by the name of the Ethiopian Education Foundation and living in the capital city of Addis Ababa. Every morning at 7 a.m., the managers and I maneuvered around the hostel making sure our students were prepared for class; breakfast, consisting of bread and bananas, was eaten and the usual suspects attempting to play hooky were dealt with. After a chaotic morning of fifty students eating, clamoring and readying themselves for class, I was free. The students left by 7:40 a.m. and I was out the door by 7:41.

I twisted and twirled down the unpaved streets of the residential neighborhood surrounding our hostel. I passed by horses grazing in green patches hidden between gaps of infrastructure and stray dogs sleeping off the morning heat. I knew the route by heart and within ten minutes I arrived at the street market. It was filled with restaurants, butcher shops, clothing stores, businesses, coffee stalls, general stores and farmer stands.

It was a Tuesday morning, and I headed straight to the farmer’s stands. Once I discovered that on Monday evenings the farmers on this street received their shipment of fresh fruits and vegetables, I arrived early the following mornings. Avocados were in season, and I was thrilled to get first pickings. I bought one kilogram of avocados for thirty birrs — a little over two pounds for less than a dollar (maybe Wegmans will price match it). I had a selection of hundreds of fresh avocados and took them in my hand, lightly pressing with my fingers and testing their softness. I prepared the avocado by whipping it in a bowl, followed by adding a pinch of salt, cumin and berbere (an Ethiopian blend of capsicum, cayenne pepper and other local spices). Spread over fresh bread from a bakery and topped with thinly sliced tomatoes, it was rich, creamy, delectable and quickly became my go-to meal. I could not get enough and was astonished by the depth of flavor.

It occurred to me that I had never eaten avocados in their proper season, nor did I know when their growing season was. The ones that arrive in Vermont are harvested green and only ripen after traveling across the continent (most coming from Mexico) and resting on a store shelf, a process that prevents the fruits’ tangible flavors from coming to fruition. A lifetime of eating out of season; you get used to the taste of cardboard. I felt cheated out of the real deal, and I had been. It was clear that not all avocados are created equal. I admit, however obvious an observation it may seem, this truth refutes the dogma that our industrial food producers depend upon, as they work meticulously to convince the public that the quality of the produce is the same no matter the season, growing methodology or time spent on the shelf.

I restocked on my regulars: Papaya, carrots, plush tomatoes, avocados (of course) and, for the first-time, mangoes. This was a treat and sparked newfound excitement. The mangoes were yellow with splotches of rustic red. I chatted with the store owner and brought up the new items. He too was excited and explained that late-October was the tail end of the rainy season,  signaling newly harvested fruits would be pouring into the city. He insisted that I take some home with me, scanning the treasure pile with his light brown eyes. He discerned which were ripe simply by their color. He was in his late fifties, bolstered a lifetime of experience. Once satisfied with his choice, he placed the three softball-sized mangoes into my bag and smiled.

I scuttled home with a grin on my face and convinced my coworkers Giulio and Alice to join me in the backyard. As we chatted and chortled in the sun, I slowly pulled out the mango and watched as their faces lit up. These were the first of the season and neither of them had seen them in the markets yet. I placed my blade to the right of the seed and cut vertically down. The texture of the mango was firm, and the blade easily sliced through the fibrous flesh. This revealed the yellow and gold innards and a sweet aroma that emanated from the fruit. I cubed the mango slice against the peal and passed it to Alice, repeating the process until nothing but the seed was left. We sat quietly devouring the golden treat. My saliva glands burst with elation and raced to meet the juices of the mango. Once again, the sweetness and texture were incomparable to what I had eaten back home.

Our industrial food system deprives consumers of quality flavors by creating a year-round market for produce harvested out of season. Just a short time ago apples could only be savored in the fall, asparagus in the early spring and the sight of blueberries on your plate in January would raise a curious eyebrow. Only after our produce became drowned in chemical preservatives and transported in electricity-guzzling refrigeration trucks could our food thwart the nagging desires of decomposition. We share the blame for this shift, as it was the buyers that demanded fruits and vegetables be accessible year-round.

Eating seasonally realigns with the cyclic nature of growth and reinstates the flavor our produce once provided us. Spread avocado across your toast during its peak in the summer, or share mangoes with friends in the early fall and begin to reap the benefits of eating with the seasons.

 

Danyeh Gutema is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at dlg96@cornell.edu.