Picking good apples is about patience. You carefully run your eyes and your fingers over the fruit to find defects, bruises, soft spots. If you don’t find any, and the firmness is good for the variety, you are good to go.
Picking fresh fish is about knowledge. The signs are obvious if you know them, and if you don’t they are so subtle that they shrink into invisibility. Are the eyes clear? Is the flesh moist but not slimy? Does it smell like the ocean instead of a corner fish-market? Hit all of the check marks of the secret fish-code and you are good to go.
Picking an avocado, on the other hand, is about bravery. The difference between a palatable avocado and a luxuriously smooth and buttery avocado lives in the nanometer-wide space where perfect ripeness and rotting mess dance pressed so closely it would be outlawed in some countries as obscene.
My wife usually asks me to avocados for our group guacamole or homemade sushi. She usually does. She’s better at picking out every other kind of produce item. She has both the patience and the skill to inspect every item and identify the desired traits. And she’s good at picking avocados. Her avocados are always decent, and she never gets a bad one. That’s the problem.
She’s scared of getting a bad one. In order to pick avocados that will make you shut down all unnecessary senses as soon as you put them in your mouth so you can focus all of your brain power on that single moment of culinary transcendence, you need to take a risk. You need to accept that the squeeze which tells you it’s perfect is nearly identical to the squeeze that tells you it’s rotten. You need to accept that sometimes you’ll be wrong.
It’s like making caramel sauce. The flavor is so deep because it’s already started to burn. It’s like dry-aging beef. The added complexity comes from the fact that decomposition has already begun.
We think of these states—burned, decomposed—as bad things. That’s what happens when things go wrong. When you’re not paying attention. We think of these states as binary. As unilateral. Because they frighten us. “I’m a bad cook and if I don’t pay careful attention I will burn the food.” That’s what nervous cooks believe, because they are so worried about the inevitability of catastrophe that they never see the beauty among the ruins. They pay close attention to signs that things are going wrong that they miss the spark.
It’s like a near-death experience that rekindles the lust for life. Sometimes clay is perfectly fired in the flames that nearly shatter it.
“See, that would have been too squishy for me,” people say about my avocado choices. “I would have put it back.”
Sometimes I pick a bad avocado. Every time I cut an avocado whose texture whispers promises of both ripeness and rot, time slows down. I know that not only is this moment about to define my upcoming meal, I am about to be tested. Validated in my risky method, or cast aside a reckless fool. Once I selected four avocados and every one of them was rotten.
When I bite into an apple that my wife has selected I know exactly what to expect. She knows how to make sure they aren’t mealy. That they are always sweet. That’s the joy, and the mundanity. A sane life requires some measure of inevitable happiness. But not all wonder should be on the color-coordinated schedule.
A perfect avocado is, to me, far, far superior to a perfect apple. Is it because of the pleasure it brings, or because of its elusiveness? When I cut open an avocado to find bright green flesh so soft I can spread it with my finger, with no hint of brown, my face melts into a ridiculous grin. My joy is so unabashed it’s embarrassing. My self congratulation borders on narcissism. For just a few seconds, I am an unironic fanboy of my own achievement.
So I’ll keep picking avocados like I’m robbing a bank. Sometimes they’ll be terrible, and we’ll have to live without slices of avocado on our burritos. Sometimes they’ll be magic. But I’ll always know that in the moment of selection, I lived.