The snack colored by history and hostages
The politics of pistachios
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Nuts. Part of the cashew family. Probably originated in Iran.
It began with a green nut (in an off-white shell) in Iran that became a red nut in the USA, before things got complicated and politicians used the nuts to make a point.
The green nut was a regular pistachio, which originated in Iran before traveling around the world millennia ago. Archaeologists have found 9,000-year-old pistachios at a dig in Iraq and, just a few weeks ago, one in England that was about 2,000 years old. The first pistachios in the USA—at least the first ones widely available for sale—were imported from Syria around 1894 by a man named Farjalla Zaloom, “25 lbs. to 50 lbs. at a time,” according to his son Joseph, writing in 1934, at which point the family company, Zenobia, was importing “over a million pounds [of pistachios] each year.”
Zenobia was the USA’s pistachio champion, dominating both sales and general promotion, touting the “Deliciously prepared. Ready to eat.” nuts in both niche magazines like Peanut Promoter (real name!) and National Nut News (another real name!) and general-interest publications like Billboard from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Around 1934, Zenobia’s ads started mentioning “Syrian red or white enamel” varieties, signaling the arrival of a new product: pistachios dyed a crimson hue. This coloring, which may be the basis of Zenobia’s 1931 patent for a pistachio preservative, served a couple of purposes: an actual but unadvertised function of helping to hide spotting and other imperfections, but also the brand-boost of creating a greater sense of novelty, even exoticism—note the specific description of “Syrian red” pistachios. The first pistachio trees were planted in the USA in 1904, but imported nuts, most often in that faded-ruby color, dominated the industry in the USA for decades. Most of these imported pistachios came from Iran, which shipped 20 million pounds of the nuts to the USA by the early 1970s. (Zenobia’s promotional legacy lives on, by the way: Zaloom Marketing is still working hard for the nut industry.)
In 1978, the world changed, when the Iranian Revolution began. The following year, on November 4, 1979, Iranians protesting the USA’s ongoing support of the Shah stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took 66 hostages. In response, U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced an embargo on goods from Iran, including those famous red-dyed pistachios.
Farmers in California worked quickly to fill the gap in supply, as American consumers still had plenty of demand for pistachios. “In 1980, they grew roughly 27 million pounds of pistachios in California alone (where the majority of U.S. pistachios are still grown today),” as Simran Sethi details in a long, fascinating story for The Counter. The USA dialed back the embargo in 1986 but, as Sethi notes, the pistachio industry had already changed forever:
The United States resumed trade with Iran, and Persian pistachios made their way back onto store shelves just as American trees were reaching peak maturation. This competition precipitated a new layer of sociopolitical drama as domestic producers and processors, worried that the imports would compromise sales of their new crop, petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission. The federal agency agreed that Iran’s pistachio prices would pose a threat to local production and imposed a special import duty of just over 214 percent on unshelled Iranian pistachios.
In 2008, the USA overtook Iran as the world’s leading grower of pistachios, and there are now 485,865 acres of pistachio trees in California, a sprawling and lucrative industry that started with a single nut from Iran in the 1930s.
Pistachios continue to be a major political point in U.S.-Iran relations (seriously, go read Sethi’s story, it’s worth your time) and featured in President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of sanctions on Iran. Still, Iranian pistachios continue to be a big business—and because global commerce is a complicated, sprawling thing, one of Trump’s other battles may have had an interesting effect: more than half of the USA’s export market for pistachios was going to China, but Trump’s trade wars with that nation cut into those exports, leaving a major opening for Iran to fill.
Anyway, here’s a genuinely captivating video of a pistachio processing facility in Iran:
Get it here
Probably available at your local grocery store or public market. If you’re looking for the red ones, they’re available at Nuts.com, which advertises their nostalgic appeal.
Will you like it?
Probably! Unless you’re allergic to them.
Automatic Age (via International Arcade Museum Library): “Here is Some History on ‘Zenobia’ Pistachio Nuts” (PDF) I especially love this story, from 1934, because it was written by an employee of the Zenobia Company. Advertorials are nothing new!
The Counter: “As Trump defends sanctions at the U.N., one Iranian food—the pistachio—shows how deeply two nations’ fates are intertwined”
How Stuff Works: “The Nutty Story of Red Pistachios and the Iran Hostage Crisis”
Here are some recipes for pistachio (or piftachio) candies and ice cream from a British cookbook published in 1789.
And by the way: New Mexico—not California—has a place called PistachioLand and it has a roadside attraction billed as the world’s largest pistachio.