The History of the Pistachio
Delicious, green pistachios are great. Also known as the “smiling nut” in Iran and the “happy nut” in China, pistachios are chock full of nutrients that include fiber, protein, magnesium, and the B6 vitamin. Even though they’re popularly known as a nut because they are in the pistachio family, the pistachio that we eat is actually the seed portion of the fruits produced by pistachio trees. Not only do pistachios make for a great snack, they may have even been the first snack; pistachios have been around seemingly forever!
Flourishing in hot climates, pistachios are native to the Middle East. They’re among the oldest flowering nut trees; pistachios are among the only two nuts to be mentioned in the Bible (alongside almonds in Genesis 43:11), and recent archaeological evidence shows that people were enjoying them in present-day Turkey since as early as 7000 B.C. According to Moslem legends, the pistachio was among the foods brought down to Earth by Adam. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great around 330 B.C., the pistachio quickly spread from the Middle East to the Mediterranean where they were soon regarded as a delicacy by peasants and royalty alike.
As the story goes, the Queen of Sheba enjoyed pistachios so much that she decreed pistachios to be a food exclusively for royalty, and she demanded that the entire crop produced on her land be kept for herself and her court. She even forbade the common people from growing the nut to enjoy themselves. It’s also widely believed that Nebuchadnezzar II, the ancient Babylonian king who ruled around 600 B.C., also enjoyed the nut and even allegedly had them planted in the long-fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Then, later on in the First Century A.D., pistachios were introduced to Italy and Spain under the rule of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, and a few decades later, Roman Emperor Vitellius introduced the delicious green nut to the Roman people.
From then, pistachios gradually made their way across the world. As the spread of Islam expanded, so did the pistachio cultivation area, and through the Crusades and the Middle Ages, pistachios continued to expand into Eastern Europe. When it reached Central Europe, it became known as the ‘Latin Penny Nut’ because it came along the Italian sales route that travelled over the Alps.
Pistachios reached America around the 1880s when they travelled to the new world with immigrants from the Middle East. Until World War II, the pistachio was widely seen as an expensive ingredient in bakery treats, but after the war they became quickly popularized as a snack. Soon the green nuts were available in vending machines where you could get ‘a dozen for a nickel.’
As the popularity and demand for pistachios grew, farmers in the United States began looking for areas in which they could be cultivated. Eventually California’s dry, hot Central Valley was selected due to its resemblance of the arid Middle East.
In the United States today, California, Arizona, and New Mexico collaboratively harvest 100% of the country’s pistachio production with California alone producing 99%, a more than $1.6 billion industry.