Just off a stretch of interstate called the Avocado Highway, crews are harvesting fist-sized fruits destined to be mashed and mixed by football fans across the country.

Super Bowl Sunday has become one of the nation's biggest days for avocado consumption as the popularity of its dip derivative, guacamole, has spread. And that translates into a winter windfall for the nation's avocado capital.

Some 40 million pounds of avocados will be eaten during this year's Super Bowl festivities, according to the California Avocado Commission.

It was not so long ago that the avocado, a native of southern Mexico, was considered exotic in much of the United States. But the California cuisine boom and the rise in Hispanic populations have created new markets for avocado growers.

"Ten years ago people in the Midwest didn't even know what an avocado was," said Jerome Stehly, a grower in Bonsall, about 50 miles north of San Diego.

Recently, an MTV film crew that visited Stehly's orchard was surprised to see that avocados grow on large trees, he said: "I think they were expecting a bush."

Now the avocado -- a word derived from ahuakatl, or testicle, in the Aztecs' Nahuatl language -- is a big part of one of the most American events of all, the Super Bowl.

The NFL championship marks the largest U.S. consumption day of avocados for any sporting event. It ranks third among avocado consumption events overall, behind Memorial Day weekend and top-ranked Cinco de Mayo, the May 5 celebration of an 1862 Mexican victory over French forces.

For the 2001-02 season, California growers reaped a record $358 million in sales of 400 million pounds of fruit.

The avocado commission began promoting avocados as a Super Bowl menu item in the early 1990s after growers noticed the game coincided with the start of harvest for many trees.