How Avocado Toast Came to Mean 'Healthy'
I hate eggs. I have hated eggs since I can remember. If you don’t like eggs, you quickly learn how much everyone else loves eggs, because the minute you say you don’t like eggs, people will regale you—with more gustatory vehemence than I have ever seen in reaction to any other food quirk—with long rhapsodies on the glory of eggs. I have lost hours of my life faking enthusiasm while someone I’d just started dating appeared in the morning with an omelet like a dog with a tennis ball. To the egg-averse, social breakfasts are an awkward politeness dance.
An antipathy to eggs means that my brunch options when dining out are severely limited. Almost all brunch menus offer a couple non-egg options, but these are usually a thinly disguised form of cake. I like cake for breakfast—I’m not a monster—but I like cake for breakfast the way god intended it: eaten out of the box with a fork, standing up in the kitchen the morning after a party. But non-egg brunch options are in most cases a direct route to a day-long food coma, which isn’t always what I want to do on a Sunday. For me, avocado toast, in all its stupid, viral popularity, has been a godsend.
The first place I ever had avocado is Café Gitane, a tiny Nolita café often cited as the origin of avocado toast’s popularity in New York. I ordered it the first time because I wanted the cheapest thing on the menu. The toast arrived and exceeded my expectations by an order of magnitude, despite the fact that I had just paid eight dollars for two slices of bread. The avocado toast at Gitane is actually perfect—the bread heavily doused in both olive oil and lemon juice, softening it without turning it mushy, the avocado walking the delicate line between a mash (precarious) and a goo (icky). Gitane’s toast is elegant, a perfect newly rendered, welded whole of a thing. I thought for years avocado toast was Gitane’s invention and sole province. In reality, it’s most likely an Australian import, a hearty sort of “stuff on bread” breakfast more common in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, as well as in California, where a whole avocado regularly becomes part of any and every meal, appropriated by New York and similar American cities as a “health option.”
The health-industrial complex now and then manages to settle on a mandate so simple it’s a single word, answering the prayers of lazy and desperate dupes like myself. “Carbs” is one. “Green” is another. Anything green is good for you; the color green itself equals health. The juice place next to my gym offers a green juice that could be transposed onto the menu of the greasy diner two blocks away and labeled “mint chip milkshake,” with no substitutions or revisions, but I buy it as a health beverage because the juice place sells it as “green juice.” Sometimes we want permission rather than accuracy, or at least I do.
Avocados are green, so they get lumped into the category of healthy food. On many if not most menus, avocado toast costs the same $15 as a gigantic plate of eggs or pancakes, despite taking up perhaps a fifth of the space, and despite demanding almost no skill on the part of the person preparing it. The absurd cost of avocado toast is a tax levied on the desire to appear healthy – its menu pricing assumes that anyone who wants to order avocado toast is willing to pay a premium for a sense of superiority, for the privilege of being the person at the table eating the green thing.
“Health” is a way of saying not that I want my body to function well into old age, but rather that I want the blameless permissions offered by desirability. Phrases such as “clean eating” or “cleanse” refer not to the state of my internal organs—visible to no one as I go about my day and affecting not at all how I am treated by acquaintances and strangers—but rather to the way in which a kind of ascetic self-denial is associated with emotional and personal virtue. A monolithic idea of health is an absurd one, as absurd as assigning an assumed health value to every food of a particular color, and gives away the fact that health is never what we really mean. Thin bodies and small bodies do not correlate with health, either—a body’s shape and its functionality have little do with one another, and combine in any as many particular arrangements as there are individuals, a spectrum so fractious it’s impossible to encompass in any set of instructions for health, let alone in a mandate as simple as a single word.
“Green” food falls into the same category of phrases with “wellness” and “clean eating,” phrases that whisper a code—we are not talking about preserving our bodies, but talking about a way to make them smaller. In many cases, the pursuit of thinness and the pursuit of health are in fact opposed, but the industries that want to sell food based on society’s preference for thinness use health as a way to indicate not just weight loss, but the ideas of virtue we attach to it. “Clean eating” means little about a particular way of eating, and everything about how we learn to see a certain type of body as blameless, and another as dirty or sinful. The idea of green food as good links itself to the environmentalist connotations of the word green—putting greens into one’s body is virtuous on a personal level in the same way that using clean energy or having a small carbon footprint is virtuous on a global one.
Green as a metaphor for environmental responsibility may mean something; green as a blanket category for food means only a connection with the desire to be acceptably thin. It is assumed that saying I want to be healthy is a way of saying I want to be thin, and wanting to be thin is a way of saying that I want to get away with things. I want to reinforce the entrenched assumptions of the world as long as they benefit me. In the same way, ordering avocado toast at the absurd prices in NYC restaurants says that I am willing to pay $15 for two pieces of toast, an avocado, and a wholesale, self-praising illusion in a world that assigns not just moral value but personal identity to the public choice of food items. Given all this, it’s hard to think of my enjoyment of this food as defensible. It’s easy to understand why the internet mocks the avocado toast trend, why it’s seized on it as a symbol of everything wrong with wellness Instagrams and hipster brunches.
The avocado toast at Café Gitane would be one of my favorite breakfasts anywhere even if it had neither no health cache. Avocado is indulgent, like cake without the sugar crash. It allows me to get as excited about breakfast as my friends who love eggs routinely do. But at the same time it makes me aware of how the health industry chips away at my ability to distinguish between actual taste preference and food choice as a substitute for identity.