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Gil Henry: Thank Him for Your Guacamole

Enjoying a slice of avocado on a sandwich or mixing up a little guacamole to eat while watching a football game seems like the natural thing to do today, which is why it's strange to think that 30 or so years ago, fewer than half of Americans had ever even tasted one.

Indeed, the avocado was considered an exotic California fruit, as alien to people in the Northeast and the Midwest as a palm tree. But even if you lived in the western part of the United States, where you could find avocados in supermarkets, there was another problem: Avocados won't ripen on the tree, and the store-bought ones were typically as hard and inedible as croquet balls for several days, until they ripened. Avocado growers were desperate to convince consumers that avocados weren't an inconvenient pain to deal with. As recounted in a 1982 Los Angeles Times article, they hired actress Angie Dickinson of Police Woman fame to star in a series of commercials in which she attributed her shapely figure to avocado eating, and showed people how to ripen them, two or three at a time, in a paper sack.

Alluring as Dickinson was, the campaign probably wasn't very effective. Avocado growers learned that the following year when they put hidden cameras in a California supermarket and saw shoppers squeezing avocados and putting them back in the bin because of their forbidding hardness.


Even so, we'd probably be still eating bean dip with our chips if it weren't for an avocado grower named Gil Henry, who died on May 18 at age 88 in Escondido, Calif. It was Henry, scion of the San Diego-based avocado-packing clan that founded Henry Avocado Corp., who came up with an ingenious way to overcome consumer resistance. If people were put off by hard avocados, why not ripen them before they were sold? Henry decided to try the same methods used to ripen bananas. In 1983, he built a special speed-ripening room, into which he pumped small amounts of ethylene, a gas normally released by avocados during the natural ripening process.

Once he had perfected the process, Henry became an evangelist for pre-ripened avocados, personally pitching the concept to grocery store chains. "A lot of people said he was kind of nuts and that this wouldn't work, but now it's the norm," Vic Varvel, vice president of packing at Henry Avocado, told U-T San Diego. "His tireless work on [ripening rooms] changed the industry for the better." Today, Henry Avocado has 54 ripening rooms in various locations around the country, and other avocado marketers have followed suit.

Henry also helped popularize the Hass avocado, the creamy-textured variety that most of us eat today.


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