"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What is Guacamole, Anyway?

Let's get one thing out of the way: there's no such thing as one "right" way to make guacamole. There are not even one hundred "right" ways to make guacamole. There are as many "right" ways to make guacamole as there are abuelitas in Mexico. 

I'd like to be a fly on the wall listening to a hundred Mexican abuelitas argue about how to make guacamole. There will no doubt be virulent partisans: for or against the inclusion of tomatoes; the chunky tribe versus the smooth; those who advocate garlic and those to whom garlic is a barbarian adulterant. 

If we turn to etymology, as I always do in times of doubt, we find that "guacamole" is a compound word made up of the Nahuatl words for "avocado" and "sauce." (Well, okay if you want to get technical the Nahuatl word "ahuahacatl" actually means "testicle" but that's only an interesting aside. Avocados grow in pairs. Picture it.) Therefore, guacamole is simply a sauce made with avocados. Quite likely, for the prehispanic residents of Mexico, guacamole may have consisted of no more than mashed avocados and salt, perhaps with chiles. 

I don't know enough about regional Mexican cuisine to pinpoint a cook's origin by her guacamole recipe, but I know how they do it in Oaxaca - or, okay, at least how my husband's family does it. In Oaxaca, guacamole contains tomatillos. When Homero and I were getting married, my mom hired some great caterers and told her we wanted a Mexican buffet. They worked up a sample menu and invited us to taste it. It was fantastic - the food is what everyone remembers about my wedding - but Homero had a problem with the guacamole. They had made a chunky style guacamole with tomatoes - like a pico de gallo suspended in a mousse of whipped avocado. Homero barely recognized it as guacamole - he wanted something looser, soupier, more liquid. In Oaxaca this is achieved by blending the avocados with soft simmered tomatillos, fresh raw chiles, onion, and cilantro. Oaxacan guacamole is smooth, of variable spiciness, and most often used as one of several garnishes on tacos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, or what have you. It isn't a "dip," per se. 

Over the years, I've developed what I consider to be my own ur-guacamole recipe, meaning the list of ingredients without which I cannot make guacamole, but in practice, I seldom make guacamole the same way twice. That list is:

- avocados (of course)
- chile (much preferred fresh but I'll use cayenne powder if I have to)

Onion is nearly as essential but I don't include it because  if I didn't have an onion (the horror!) I wouldn't let it stop me from making guacamole if I had all the other ingredients. 

In Mexico, avocados are cheap. Even in the states, in some areas, avocados used to be ubiquitous and inexpensive. In fact, they used to be called "poor man's butter" in Florida. Alas, no longer. Even in season, avocados these days are pretty dear. So I'm often looking for avocado-extenders. 
If I happen to have them, I'll use tomatillos. I like to use them raw, however, instead of simmered. For one thing, who is going to make guacamole if it involves actual cooking? For another, I like the fresh, slightly citrusy acidity of raw tomatillos and am not a fan of the soft, almost slimy texture of cooked tomatillos. 

Other extenders I've come up with are decidedly less traditional. I have used sour cream, yogurt, and even 

(Dum Dum DUM....) 


I started one time throwing in plain, tangy yogurt not as an extender, but because I was looking for a way to make the guacamole less calorically dense. I decided I liked it. The acidity of good yogurt is a nice balance to the creaminess of avocado. 

Personally, I like the texture that the addition of dairy products brings to guacamole. Avocado is so creamy and rich, and it seems to me that extending it with other creamy and rich products like sour cream or mayonnaise preserves that quality.  That creaminess always needs to be balanced by the acidity of lime. I might extend that to include lemon, but in my mind citrus is the only possible source of acidity. I have occasionally heard of people using vinegar and while I would never do such a thing, I'm not going to tell anybody else what to do. 

Which brings me to my main point. Any given dish made by any given cook has a story, a history. That history interacts with the tastes and the resources of the cook to produce a new dish - the actual dish that the cook is putting on his or her table on any given evening. "Authenticity" is a moving target, not a static Platonic ideal enshrined in any particular place or time. I am a good cook - I'm both respectful of tradition and inventive and innovative. I use everything I have at my disposal - the knowledge imparted to me by my mother and mother-in-law; the skills I have developed through trial and error; the ingredients unique to this farmstead, this time and place; and the feedback from my husband and children, my "customers." 

The food that I place on my family's table night after night is the unique and personal expression of the covergence  of multiple factors. That makes it "authentic." My guacamole is authentic. Is it authentic Oaxacan? No. Is it authentic Oaxacan-American? Yes.

Is it delicious? Hell to the yeah. 


Anonymous said...

You might want to consider green tomatoes as a nontraditional extender. I made a green tomato salsa that is quite yummy and used it in my last batch of guacamole last weekend. It got rave reviews. You can freeze green tomatoes too.