Avocados, once a darling of Italy’s foodie scene, now stigmatized. And not for the reason you may suspect.

aguacateTraveling to Italy after a more than 18-month hiatus was like a trip to the future. Even though you could follow news and trends through social and mainstream media from afar, there were bound to be evolving mores that even the eagle-eyed Italophile would miss.

And by mores, I don’t just mean the normative conventions and attitudes embodying the fundamental moral values of a particular society (Oxford English Dictionary). I also intend the behavioral and physiological (as opposed to morphological) characteristics of a group… of the same kind living in a particular habitat. (Also via the OED. The former is the more common locution.)

Looking back through my travelog entries, the first mention of tasting avocado in Europe took shape not in Italy but in Greece. The island of Santorini in 2011, to be exact, 10 years ago. It was at a beach resort where chilled shredded crab was served atop a creamy dollop of avocado fruit that had been redistributed in the fruit’s exocarp.

In the years that followed, the avocado would begin to make intermittent appearances in my gastronomic expeditions, usually as an exotic fruit served in a savory context. Those fruits came mostly from Israel. And even though many of my Italian friends and colleagues had come to know the culinary pleasures of the aguacate through their travels in the Americas, they generally had not yet gained complete facility in the art of ripening the mesocarp.

But by late 2018, the avocado seemed to have firmly established itself in the Italian canon coquinario.

I’ll never forget sitting down to lunch at a Michelin-style restaurant on Lake Garda, the guest of a top Garda winemaker, and being served a salmon tartare arranged on a bed of perfectly ripened and diced avocado.

“Do you like avocado?” asked said winemaker entirely clueless to the fact that I grew up in Southern California where avocados literally grow in your backyard and where the assemblage of Mexican and California nouvelle cuisines could hardly exist with out its sine qua non love for the fruit.

It struck me that she was convinced (although not the brightest tool in the shed) that she was turning me on to something I probably had never tasted.

But by the time I finally got back to Italy in July 2021, after an absence of more than a year and half, avocados had all but been banned from the Italian überhipster foodie’s diet. Surprised by this lacuna, I asked my Italian friends where the once ubiquitous ahuacatl had absconded.

Indignant at the query, they answered by questioning my devotion to environmental causes. Didn’t I care about the deforestation of the Amazon? Didn’t I care about the planet? They wouldn’t be caught dead eating an avocado, they told me.

A little bit of digging led to my discovery of a series of articles that appeared toward the end of 2020.

“Do you know how much forest you just ate? It’s time to reflect and do something about it,” was the title of one such piece published by the Huffington Post (Italy).

“If we continue to serve products that are not ‘farm to table,’ like avocados,” it reads (translation mine), “we are endangering the monarch butterfly. Avocado groves are widely to blame for deforestation in Central America and they are putting water reserves at risk.”

“Avocado mania is endangering the beautiful monarch butterfly,” reads another.

“‘Made in Europe’ avocados have a smaller impact on the environment than those imported from other continents. But they are straining water resources in southern Portugal and Spain,” reads yet another.

The question of the environmental impact of “avocado mania” isn’t new. A number of foodie-focused blog posts, including this one by a prominent Italian food blog, from 2016 and 2017 questioned the sustainability of “avocado toast” (toast di avocado, the Italian locution).

But the proverbial drop that made the glass overflow seems to be the media attention devoted to “avocado mania” in late 2020.

Over the more than three decades that I’ve been traveling to Italy, I’ve always been impressed by Italians’ sense that environmental responsibility is a civic duty — something I rarely see in the U.S. I’ll never forget the impossible-to-miss battery recycling bins that dotted corners of residential neighborhoods during my first visits to the country in the late 1980s. I’ll never forget the way a friend’s 70-year-old parent recycled cardboard milk cartons as trash receptacles. Ne’er a plastic bag sullied their kitchen.

It’s hard to imagine a Texan or Californian world without avocados. From the chunky guacamole of my native San Diego or the creamy guacamole of my adoptive Houston, the avocado is at the center of our family’s dietary universe. But the avocado mania of my Italian comrades is now passé. And maybe, well actually, most definitely, that’s a good thing.

Image via Shelli Friedberg’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

On wine and good health in the pandemic circa 1348 (my Georgetown Humanities Initiative lecture).

Above: Sandro Botticelli’s “Banquet in the Pine Forest” (1482-83), the third painting in his series “The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti,” a depiction of the eight novella of the fifth day in Boccaccio’s Decameron (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

When esteemed wine educator Karen MacNeil upbraided me last year for writing about a wine and its effect on my metabolism, it only reminded me of what a soulless wine writer she is. And her pungent words came to mind this week when I delivered a virtual lecture on wine as an expression of Western culture for the Georgetown University Humanities Initiative.

One of the topics covered in my talk was wine as portrayed in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. For those unfamiliar with the work (one of the pillars of the Western canon), the backdrop of the 100 tales told by the young Florentine nobles is the Black Death (Plague) of the mid-14th century. The pandemic reached his city around 1348.

In the introduction to the collection of novellas, Boccaccio describes wine consumption habits of Florentine citizens during the health crisis, their excesses and their moderation, and the role that wine plays in achieving good health.

In the work’s afterword, he returns to the subject of wine and moderate consumption.

“Like everything else,” he writes, “these stories, such as they are, may be harmful or helpful, depending on the listener.”

    Who does not know that wine is a very fine thing for the healthy… but that is harmful for people suffering from a fever? Shall we say it is bad because it does harm to those who are feverish? Who does not know that fire is extremely useful, in fact downright necessary for [hu]mankind? Shall we say it is bad because it burns down houses and villages and cities?

(The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, New York, 2013.)

As evidenced in the passage above, Boccaccio and his contemporaries believed that wine, like fire, was “downright necessary” for humankind.

In Medieval Europe, wine was prized for its ability to balance the “hot” and “cold” of foods and dishes. “Hot” wines were ideally served with “cold” foods and inversely, “cold” wines were best paired with “hot” dishes. These were not gradations of temperature, spiciness, or alcohol content, but rather indicators of humoral composition.

The humors of the drinker, and the place and time of consumption, also came into play.

“Once the nature of a given wine was determined,” writes Medieval scholar Allen J. Grieco, “it still remained necessary for a consumer to respect at least four other conditions.”

    First of all it was necessary to know the humoral constitution of the persons who was going to drink the wine. Secondly, it was important to determine what food was going to be eaten with it. Thirdly, it was necessary to take into account the time of the year in which the wine was to be drunk and finally, it was also important to consider the geographical location in which the wine was to be consumed.

(“Medieval and Renaissance Wines: Taste, Dietary Theory, and How to Choose the ‘Right’ Wine [14th-16th centuries],” by Allen J. Grieco, Mediaevalia, vol. 30, 2009, The Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Binghamton University, The State University of New York.)

Boccaccio’s belief that wine was necessary for humankind is widely reflected in the 15-century treatise “On Right Pleasure and Good Health” by Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Sacchi “Il Platina” (see Platina. On Right Pleasure and Good Health, a critical edition and translation of De honesta voluptate et valetudine by Mary Ella Milham, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Tempe, 1998).

Pairing the right wine with the right food (and at the right time and in the right place) was one of the keys, he writes throughout the work, to good metabolism and healthy living — echoes of Boccaccio.

Today, wine scribblers like MacNeil embrace only aesthetic, hedonistic, and commercial values in their reviews and “educational” materials. Nearly universally, they fall short of embracing the human and humanistic currency of wine. They ask only how is this wine made?, how does this wine taste? and what’s its commercial value? without ever addressing the role that wine may play in metabolism and more generally in achieving balanced, good health. They write of lifestyle while ignoring life and living itself.

I can’t imagine a more soulless wine culture. With so many wonderful examples of wine writing over the ages where wine is viewed as vital to human experience, it’s a wonder that the current generation of wine mediators have failed us so grossly.

Maybe if MacNeil and her followers would drink a more human wine, they wouldn’t have such a prickly stick up their arses.

Shanah tovah (שנה טובה). May your new year be filled with sweetness…

Shanah tovah u’metuka. May you have a good and sweet year ahead.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as a symbol of the sweet year ahead we hope G-d will grant us.

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good and sweet new year.

From Chabad.org:

Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and well-being to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week. Happy new year…

Parzen family update from Houston.

On Friday, local media here in Houston reported that ICU capacity had already hit 100 percent and health officials are expecting an “‘unsustainable surge capacity’ of intensive care beds by July 6 [Monday].”

Also on Friday, the governor of Texas ordered all bars in the state to close, restaurants to reduce capacity, and hospitals to stop performing elective surgery.

The bottomline is that Houston has become one of the world’s pandemic epicenters. At least one health expert, a locally based international authority on infectious disease, has said that Houston may become the “worst affected city in America.”

(For those wanting to understand how we got here, I highly recommend this New York Times “Daily” podcast featuring the paper’s Texas bureau chief, Manny Fernandez. As he says and the end of the interview, it really comes down to “world view.”)

Tracie, the girls, and I are safe and healthy. And everyone in our immediate Texas family is also safe and healthy. Even as things started opening up here at the beginning of May, we have remained vigilant and have been very careful about avoiding exposure.

We are very fortunate to live in a residential neighborhood where we can walk and exercise while maintaining social distancing. We do all our grocery shopping using curbside pick up.

Tracie and I really appreciate the concern and the thoughts and wishes from our friends. Thank you for that. It means a lot to us. We have been very lucky throughout the crisis and we will continue to stay safe. Heartfelt thanks for all the messages we have received.

Food aid for Houston sommeliers and restaurant workers thanks to Master Sommelier June Rodil and her partners.

In the second in a series of Houston Press posts on how the local wine community is coping with the ongoing health crisis, this morning I published this interview with Master Sommelier June Rodil (above), a partner in one of the city’s top restaurant groups.

She’s one of just a handful of wine professionals in Houston (and the U.S. for that matter) who still have a job. And she and her team are giving back: the group’s “community box,” with roughly three days’ worth of food, is available to anyone who needs it every Saturday at 2 p.m. at Rosie Cannonball at 1620 Westheimer (at Kuester St.). The partners prepare and distribute 100 boxes each week. Rodil recommends lining up at 1:30 p.m. to ensure availability. “No questions asked,” she said. “We just don’t want anyone to go hungry.”

That’s not all she and her partners are doing for our community. And she also shared some good advice for out-of-work sommeliers. Check out the post here.

For those who wish to support our local food and wine community through a donation, I recommend the Houston-based Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund.

In other news…

I’ll be hosting a live story with Andrea Farinetti, COO of Barolo producer Borgogno, today at 11 a.m. CST (12 p.m. EST) on the Ethica Wines Instagram (@EthicaWines). Andrea’s family has played a major role in reshaping Piedmontese viticulture over the last 15 years and I’m really eager to e-meet him and discuss how he and his family’s companies are facing the challenges of the current economic climate.

Please join us if you can.

Thanks for being here and thanks for supporting Italian wine by drinking it.

Dum vita spes.

A new series for Houston Press on how the local wine community is coping with health crisis.

Like its sisters and brothers across the country, the closely knit Houston wine community is reeling from widespread layoffs and furloughs. The impact has been nothing short of devastating. Many wine professionals live paycheck to paycheck and the sudden loss of income has left an entire generation of sommeliers without a means to support themselves. It’s really bad out there: people who yesterday were serving top-shelf wines are now standing in breadlines.

In an effort to raise awareness of our community’s needs and resources, I asked the editor of the Houston Press to let me launch a new series of posts devoted to how Houston-based wine professionals are coping with the crisis and what they are doing to support their colleagues.

The first post in the series, published today, features Advanced Sommelier Jaime De Leon (above, in a selfie he took for the piece). As the Beverage Director for the Kroger supermarket chain’s Houston division, he’s one of just a handful of wine professionals who are still employed in our city.

I wanted to post Jaime’s piece first because over the course of our conversation, he underlined the fact that Kroger — like H-E-B, the other major supermarket chain that serves our community — is hiring.

“Kroger is definitely welcoming anyone and everyone that’s willing to seek employment with the Kroger company,” he told me. “Feel free to apply. We are looking for help. It’s not a good time for the total industry and our economy but thank God there are still avenues that are still available for a way to make some money.”

Visit the Kroger careers page for job listings. There are many positions currently being offered, at multiple locations across the greater Houston area.

“I’ve extended the website Kroger jobs site to everyone,” he said. “And I’ve told them that they can use my name as a reference if they need it.”

I’ve already interviewed a number of our colleagues and I’m looking forward to sharing the posts as I edit them.

If you know a Houston wine professional in need, please encourage them to apply on the Kroger website. And please feel free to pass along my contact (jparzen@gmail.com) so I can get them in touch with Jaime.

And for the record, the Houston Press is also in need of support. I’m doing these posts pro bono.

In other news…

Today, I also want to give a shout-out to another Houston colleague, a sommelier who’s been using his time in isolation during the Stay Home-Work Safe order to produce a new enocentric podcast.

Chris Poldoian’s By the Glass is just two episodes in and I was honored to be a guest on his show. He produced it remotely: we spoke by phone using headphones as we recorded our voices and then he spliced the audio files together.

Chris (below) is a great guy and a beloved member of our community. I’m not a fan of my own voice but a listen might help to pass the hours of isolation. He was keen to hear about my experiences in Franciacorta and Lambrusco. I know Chris will appreciate the click.

According to media reports, we’re about two weeks from our peak here in Houston. Please stay safe and isolate. Staying at home saves lives.