My Fruitful Search for the Origins of Avocado Toast

One woman's investigation into the birthplace of the delicious, overpriced cafe dish.

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Sep 13 2016, 2:35pm

Image by Andrew Cebulka via Stocksy

I do not remember my first avocado toast, but Chloe Osborne, the consultant chef at Manhattan's Cafe Gitane, tells a beautiful story about hers.

"I first had avocado on toast for breakfast when I was a child visiting family friends in the northern Australian state of Queensland," Osborne says. "It was mashed on the toast, salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon. I had never seen avocado treated that way. I grew up on a farm in New South Wales, where it was expensive and considered exotic. To me, as a child, Queensland was the place where things that were fancy in the country became tropical and generous—mangoes, which we hardly saw down south, were given to us kids, a whole one each, after most out clothes were taken off so we didn't make such a mess. The avocado on toast resonated the same way."

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In certain demographics—young, urban, upwardly mobile, on Instagram—avocado on toast has surpassed the grilled cheese as the go-to easy-and-filling bread-based lunch, moving far beyond the curious-minded trend pieces it inspired in 2014 and 2015 to become a regular feature in the bourgeoisie's diet. Long gone are the days when it was appropriate to sit down in a minimalist cafe, look at a handwritten menu, and exclaim, "Avocado on toast for $11? What the hell? I make that at home!" The comforts of capitalism have lulled us into a complacency that is high in fiber, potassium, and vitamins B, C, and E. By this point, it's a little dated to have an opinion on avocado toast at all.

It is all thanks to Australia, supposedly, maybe. "Australians generally like to put things on toast, particularly at breakfast—tomatoes, feta cheese, tuna, and avocado, and a generation earlier sautéed mushrooms or baked beans," Osborne confirmed. There's also, of course, Vegemite.

With such clues in mind, I embarked on this article in an attempt to determine which specific Australian "invented" avocado toast—which Australian brought the common sunny-climate snack to the counter of an overpriced cafe and said unto us, "Sup."

Unfortunately, this is probably impossible. According to the Washington Post, Sydney chef Bill Granger may have been the first person to put avocado toast on a menu in his cafe, bills, in 1993; in 1999, Nigel Slater published a recipe for an avocado "bruschetta" in the Guardian, even though it seems like the kind of thing that shouldn't require a recipe. Cafe Gitane is usually credited with bringing the dish to the United States in its Instagrammable form, and Osborne estimates it appeared on the cafe's menu around 2000, though the earliest evidence she could find of it on a menu was from 2005.

Image by BONNINSTUDIO via Stocksy

"Avocado on toast was not on every Australian cafe when I put it on Gitane's menu," Osborne says. "I think it caught on quickly there, but there was no predicting where it would head. It was almost a cliche in Australia by the time it was in Gwyneth Paltrow's book." Indeed, the dish's appearance in Gwyneth Paltrow's 2013 cookbook It's All Good is widely credited as being its turning-point from normal thing to eat to phenomenon. I think I first saw it on a menu in an Australian cafe in Berlin, where I was definitely eating a cheaper version in my apartment, but I wasn't shocked by it until I moved to New York and witnessed one of my coworkers order it from Kinfolk in early 2015.

But none of this explains what happened before 1993, which seems kind of late for something as basic as avocado on toast. Osborne estimates that her first bucolic avocado toast experience, in Queensland, took place in the mid-70s; my boyfriend's mom, who grew up in southern California, says she remembers eating avocado sandwiches in the late 60s and early 70s as well. The dish does carry a whiff of the era, a time when people would have been less concerned with the fact that its chief ingredient may be wreaking environmental havoc in the countries that grow it. Maybe it has something to do with the color scheme; maybe it has something to do with the dish's simple, carefree glamour. You can imagine Robert Redford eating it in a convertible driving around Santa Monica and being like, "What? It's actually masculine."

The popularity of avocado toast around the world doesn't give me a sense of pride in my country.

While avocado toast did not become the avocado toast as we know it—smashed not sliced on "nice bread," with a few dainty, understated toppings, like fancy salt or red pepper flakes or feta or radishes—until the late 20th century, I found evidence of proto-avocado toast dishes dating back earlier. A 1962 New York Times article advises that an "unusual" way to serve avocado is to put it in a toasted sandwich. And in an otherwise very racist article published in the New Yorker on May 1, 1937, titled "Avocado, or the Future of Eating," the protagonist/writer dines on an "avocado sandwich on whole wheat and a lime rickey" at a pharmacy called "Best Drug Stores, Inc." in Los Angeles. I can't tell if the article is meant to be satirical, or if it's just one of those weird, genre-less pieces of magazine writing of yesteryear, but that is luckily beyond the scope of our discussion. The avocado sandwich shows up regardless, proving that it was not a foreign concept to put avocado on bread in 1937.

Perhaps instead of getting caught up in the specifics of who first decided to put avocado on bread and call it a meal, we should examine instead the avocado toast's cultural impact. If it is truly an Australian dish, as ramen is Japanese or a hotdog is American, perhaps it has more to do with ingrained associations than with pedantry.

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I decided to ask an Australian person I know how he felt about avocado toast. He was supportive of the concept of the dish itself—"it's delicious and very easy to make for breakfast when it's the morning and things are hard; it's a step up from toast with spread, and yet it's significantly more exciting"—while being skeptical of the notion that his country could truly be credited with "inventing" it.

"To what extent did anyone invent something like that?" he asked. "Though it certainly seems possible that it was popular in Australian cafes and that some kind of Australian diaspora spread it to some other places."

When I asked him whether the success of avocado toast worldwide made him feel patriotic, he was less diplomatic. "No," he said. "The popularity of avocado toast around the world doesn't give me a sense of pride in my country."