Things Not to Add to Guacamole

Remember when the New York Times decided to tweet a link to a Guacamole recipe that included green peas? Twitter outrage ensued. Even the President weighed in by tweeting “respect the nyt, but not buying peas in guac. Onions, garlic, hot peppers. Classic”.

This misguided recipe was originally concocted by French chef and ABC Contina owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten in collaboration with his chef de cuisine Ian Coogan. It calls for adding half a pound of fresh, sweet peas to three Haas avocados, jalapenos, cilantro, scallions, and lime. The peas purport to “add intense sweetness and a chunky texture to the dip.”

So what went wrong?

Guacamole is a California inspired creation. Though it is technically Mexican food that traces its history back to the Aztecs, the fairly recent Haas avocados were first grown in California and are named after a California postal worker. In fact, the original Haas mother tree lived in suburban southern California until 2002, when it tragically died from root rot at the age of 76. Guacamole as we know it would not possible if not for California Haas avocados. Don’t believe me? Try making guac with a green skin avocado and let me know how it turns out.

Sadly, chefs and chef wonnabes online have been messing with guac for years. For example there is this guacamole with cottage cheese recipe. Hidden Valley decided to promote its ranch dressing guacamole with the hopes of selling more dressing. Not to be outdone, the Food Network decided that guacamole is yet another place we can add bacon. I haven’t found a recipe that includes both ranch and bacon, but I am sure it’s out there somewhere. How about a blue cheese guacamole-stuffed mushroom cap, topped with buffalo sauce? Though to be fair, this is not guacamole per se since it seems to be used as an ingredient.

The New York Times acknowledged that adding peas is a “radical move”, but insisted on doing it anyway. And there lies the flaw. Guacamole is not fertile ground for experimentation. A classic, popular dish that we all expect to have a certain flavor profile just doesn’t lend itself to wholesale reinterpretation. You can sub serrano peppers for jalapenos or hold the onions, but don’t overshadow the main ingredient: avocados. It’s like using barbecue sauce as salad dressing: both have their place and both are perfectly delicious, just not in the same bowl. We associate each with something entirely different.

In other words, when it comes to certain classic recipes, we all revert to our 8 year state. If it doesn’t taste exactly or almost exactly as we expect it to taste, we toss it and have cereal for dinner instead.

Unlike the horrible recipes I listed above, at the risk of internet scorn, there is nothing objectively wrong with the peaguac recipe. It’s not too sweet, sour, salty, fatty or acidic. On balance, it might actually work. But with food, objectively matters only in the context of history, point of reference, and expectation. Good chefs understand their food but more importantly, understand their audience and their association with that food. The New York Times struck a nerve because it failed to take the strong association we have with tasting the “right” kind of guacamole into account. Next time, maybe they can suggest subbing lime juice for lemon juice. It won’t drive internet traffic like adding peas, but it will make for a better guacamole.