A Brief History of Guacamole (And It’s Not What You’d Expect!)

Guacamole is everywhere today—but fifty years ago, it was virtually unknown. Learn how this dish evolved from an Aztec delicacy into today’s favorite party dip.

Feb 16, 2024By Kristen Jancuk, Editor; Latin & South American History
history guacamole

 

When the conquistadors landed in present-day Mexico, they found the native Aztecs eating a green dish called ahuacamolli, made with a never-before-seen fruit. Five hundred years later, it’s found at every Super Bowl party and Cinco de Mayo celebration. Read on to discover how guacamole evolved into everyone’s favorite dip—and why memes about its etymology shouldn’t be taken seriously.

 

Avocado: The Ancient Snack

avocado growing persea americana
Avocados. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Avocado toast (famously to blame for millennials not buying houses), avocado ice cream, an all-avocado restaurant in Amsterdam—avocados are certainly having a moment.

 

Avocados may be readily available almost everywhere today, hailed as a nutrient-dense superfood and mixed into everything from omelets to smoothies, but prior to the 16th century, they were unknown to all but a select few.

 

Avocados originated in the Americas, specifically in Mesoamerica and northwestern South America. Once the preferred snack of now-extinct megafauna, whose size allowed them to munch the treats whole and disperse the large seeds with ease, the plant was first domesticated by humans, possibly three separate times, over 5,000 years ago. Evidence of humans snacking on avocados dates back even further—nearly 10,000 years.

 

codex mendoza ahuacatlan glyph
Image from the Codex Mendoza including, at the bottom left, the glyph, an avocado tree, for a place called Ahuacatlan, Land of Many Avocados. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Avocados were a valued resource in the pre-Columbian Americas. The Aztecs believed avocados imparted strength, and perhaps virility, to those who consumed them and considered the tree to be sacred. For regions where the fruit was grown, tributes to the empire could be paid in avocados.

 

carving pakal sarcophagus palenque
Carvings on the lid of Pakal I’s sarcophagus, at Palenque, present-day Mexico. Source: chichcalan.com

 

The Maya were fond of avocados as well. Their solar calendar’s 14th month is represented by an avocado glyph, and one of their most successful rulers, Pakal I, was buried in a sarcophagus featuring, among other images, avocado trees.

 

The fruits (yes, avocado is technically a fruit, not a vegetable!) were important enough to appear in some of the early Spanish codices, which are the best resources available for a glimpse at what life was like in the newly colonized Spanish Americas in the early 16th century.

 

Bernardino de Sahagun’s Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain) describes three different types of avocados—today the Mexican, Guatemalan, and West Indian—and a number of medicinal uses for the plant’s leaves, seeds, and oil, including as a treatment for coughs and colds, dandruff and menstrual cramps.

 

map global avocado production
Map showcasing where avocados are cultivated today. Source: Wikipedia

 

While avocados are cultivated in numerous countries today, and several distinct varietals have been developed, Mexico continues to be the world’s largest producer of avocados. Avocados remain a staple of Mexican cuisine, with slices often accompanying traditional dishes like tacos. But they are perhaps best known for being mashed, spiced, tossed together with tomatoes and onions, and scooped up with tortilla chips: guacamole.

 

The Evolution of Guacamole

alfonso de molina nahuatl spanish dictionary
Title page of Alonso de Molina’s Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana, published in 1571. Source: Wikipedia

 

When did today’s staple avocado dip first enter the picture?

 

Though its consumption most certainly pre-dates it, the earliest account comes from Alonso de Molina’s Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana—a Spanish-Nahuatl dictionary of sortswritten in 1571, which describes a manjar or delicacy made from avocados and dried ground peppers, enjoyed by the indigenous people of what is today Mexico. Other early accounts include tomato, another food native to the Americas, in the mix.

 

codez mendoza cooking molcajete
Page from the Codex Mendoza showing someone using a molcajete (middle right) to grind maize for tortillas. Source: Wikipedia

 

Ingredients were ground together in a molcaxitl, the Nahuatl word for a mortar and pestle (ultimately adopted into Spanish as molcajete). How the Aztecs ate it remains unclear—whether as a sauce mixed with other foods, a stand-alone dish, or even a dip like we do today; existing records provide no clues.

 

However it was consumed, the dish quickly gained popularity among the colonizers, and once the Spaniards introduced new foodstuffs in the Americas, additional ingredients made their way into guacamole, including lime, garlic, onions, and cilantro, turning it into essentially the dip we know today.

 

persian limes growing tree
Persian limes, introduced to present-day Mexico by the Spanish, are now a key ingredient in guacamole. Source: Wikipedia

 

Guacamole didn’t initially expand readily to Europe because there was no equivalent of avocados on the continent; the fruits—which famously go from perfectly ripe to a mushy rotten mess in the blink of an eye—couldn’t withstand the lengthy overseas journey, and the climate required for growing the trees themselves wasn’t as prevalent.

 

Avocado production in Europe remains minimal to date, but documents indicate that by the early 17th century, the Spanish had managed to start growing avocado trees domestically.

 

Avocado trees were introduced to a closer neighbor, the United States, by the early 19th century, grown in both Florida and California. But the fruit, then often called “alligator pear,” garnered little interest outside those states. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, when avocado growers in California banded together to promote their goods—and adopted the less-swampy name avocado—that the fruit’s popularity slowly began to grow.

 

vintage california avocado recipe ad
Avocado ad and recipe from 1974. Source: Click Americana

 

An end to the ban on imports of Mexican avocados and a growing Mexican population in the United States both resulted in increased avocado consumption, but what really sealed the deal for the ubiquity of guacamole in the US was the Super Bowl, annual sporting event turned eat-a-thon.

 

Still struggling to get avocados on the plates of Americans, the California Avocado Commission hired a PR firm to promote their fruit, and it came up with the Guacamole Bowl. For the 1992 event, the firm had NFL players and their families dream up guacamole recipes to battle it out in a snack dip competition that the public could vote on. Avocado sales in the US have boomed ever since; the US is now the world’s largest importer of avocados, with avocado consumption standing at about 8.5 pounds per capita.

 

Mexico, of course, remains the world’s largest producer and consumer (17 pounds per capita!) of avocado, and since the conquistadors first encountered the Aztecs dining on avocado dip, guacamole has continued to evolve. While the ripe avocados and staple ingredients have remained, additions vary by region, incorporating local elements.

 

guacamole chapulines fried grasshoppers
A regional version of guacamole topped with chapulines. Source: Taco el Nevado

 

Guacamole consumers in Mexico City might find it accompanied by chicharrones (pork rinds), while on the Pacific coast, recipes incorporating shrimp can be found. For the truly adventurous, a trip to Oaxaca might be in order to try some guacamole topped with chapulines—fried grasshoppers.

 

Even fried insects aren’t as controversial as some of the guacamole variations that have appeared outside of Mexico in recent years. The New York Times famously printed and received a wave of backlash to a guacamole recipe featuring green peas, while celebrity chef Chrissy Teigen (in)famously adds cheddar cheese to her dip.

 

Etymology: From Ahuacamolli to Guacamole

guacamole molcajete avocado
Guacamole in a molcajete, topped with pepitas. Source: Bon Appetit

 

Since the Aztecs invented everyone’s favorite tortilla chip topping, it makes sense that the word we use for it originated with them as well—although it has undergone some linguistic shifts since then.

 

The Aztecs spoke Nahuatl, a language indigenous to the Americas still spoken by over one million people today, and one that has left its mark on both the English and Spanish languages. Classical Nahuatl was the primary language spoken throughout Mesoamerica from the 7th century CE through the Spanish conquest.

 

aztec writing glyphs codex mendoza
Examples of Aztec glyph writing from the Codex Mendoza. Source: Wikipedia

 

In Nahuatl, the delicious green fruit is called ahuacatl, while the word for sauce is molli. (Side note: this is also where mole sauce gets its name: “sauce sauce.”) Put them together, and you get ahuacamolli, literally “avocado sauce.”

 

The Spanish chronicled the existence of the fruit as early as 1519, and shortly after Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo published the Sumario de la Natural Historia de las Indias (Summary of the Natural History of the Indies), which described the avocado trees as being called pear trees, “but not like those of Spain.” By 1554, the Spanish had adopted the word aguacate, replicating the sounds as best they could in their written language (Aztec script was glyph-based and had no alphabet, meaning there was no “correct” spelling of the word), and guacamole followed.

 

sir hans sloane naturalist avocado
Sir Hans Sloane, Irish naturalist credited with coining the word “avocado” in 1696. Source: The Independent

 

By the late 16th century, the fruit was starting to appear in the English language, the first mention being by an English merchant who had traveled in Mexico. He referred to the fruit as alvacata, presumably his attempt to replicate the Spanish aguacate. By the time Irish naturalist Sir Hans Sloane mentioned the plant by name in his catalog of Jamaican flora of 1696, it had become avocado.

 

The first English-language “recipe” for guacamole appeared in British pirate William Dampier’s 1697 culinary travelogue A New Voyage Around the World. His book describes both the avocado (pear) fruit and a guacamole-style dish made from it— “it is usually mixed with sugar and lime-juice and beaten together in a plate; and this is an excellent dish.”—while also claiming “this Fruit provokes to Lust, and therefore is said to be much esteemed by the Spaniards.” He does not include a name for the dish, though, so it remains unclear when English speakers borrowed the name of this tasty avocado mash from the Spanish and started mispronouncing guacamole with a hard “g” sound.

 

Urban Legend: The What Sauce?

A thorough look at the history of guacamole wouldn’t be complete without busting this persistent myth: guacamole does not literally translate as “testicle sauce.”

 

A number of online dictionaries indicate that the Nahuatl word for avocado, ahuacatl, was also the word the Aztecs used for “testicle.” And it’s fairly easy to see why, given their shape. The fact that they often grow in pairs probably doesn’t hurt either.

 

So, ahuacamolli, and the Spanish-derived word guacamole, can be translated as “testicle sauce,” right? Wink wink.

 

Not exactly.

 

avocados growing pairs persea americana
Avocados’ shape and growing patterns resulted in the Aztecs using “ahuacatl” as a euphemism. Source: World Atlas

 

The best linguistic evidence available suggests that ahuacatl was used the same way English speakers today might use “melons” for breasts or Spanish speakers use “huevos” (eggs) for testicles—that is, as a culinary-inspired euphemism, not an actual synonym.

 

Add to that that Nahuatl has an anatomically correct and widely recognized word for testicle, atetl, and it seems unlikely that the most “correct” word for this organ would be one that was also used for a similarly shaped, often consumed fruit.

 

Could ahuacamolli have been used as slang by the Mexica? Sure. Today’s teenagers come up with equally bizarre slang every day. Is there any evidence that they did let alone that it was a widely accepted use of the language?

 

No.

 

So, unless we also accept the argument that huevos rancheros should be understood as “farmer testicles,” perhaps it’s time to shelve the idea that guacamole literally translates into “testicle sauce” and simply appreciate that the Mexica, much like humans around the world today, couldn’t resist a silly euphemism for their private bits.

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By Kristen JancukEditor; Latin & South American HistoryKristen is an editor specializing in Latin & South American History and Hemispheric Studies. She received her MA in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies from George Washington University, and a BA in Spanish and International Relations from Bucknell University. After receiving her MA, Kristen began working on international drug policy for the Organization of American States. She is certified for Spanish-to-English translation by the American Translators Association, specializing in translating national and international policy as well as academic content focused on the Latin American region. One of her greatest and most impractical ambitions is to learn Quechua.