The Brief History of a Nut

By Christopher Zoukis

As early as 4000 BC, domesticated almonds were produced and available as a nutritious food.  The Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, circa 1325 BC, enjoyed almonds so much that he was buried with them.  Almonds imported from the Levant were discovered in his tomb.   Image courtesy

Mentioned many times in the Bible, the almond has had symbolic significance not only to Christians, but to other cultures and religions as well.  To Christians, the nut represented divine favor and divine approval.  And it spoke of the Virgin Mary’s purity, which explained the almond’s presence around the Queen of Heaven in famous works of art, where it was called the vesica piscis.  The Chinese attached the ideas of feminine beauty, fortitude in sorrow and watchfulness to the almond.  While to the Iranians, the almond represented the Tree of Heaven.  And the ancient Phrygians considered the almond the Father of all things, because it was associated with the birth of Attis.  The Romans, on the other hand, believed that almonds imparted the blessings of the gods to any public or private event.  This explained why the Romans threw almonds and not rice at newlyweds.  And, as later evidenced, the Romans discovered a more nefarious use for almonds.  One that had nothing to do with blessing.

Almonds originated in the mountains of Central Asia and once upon a time they grew wild on the road that connected China with the West – the famous Silk Road.  At first, the indigenous peoples sought almonds out and harvested the nuts because they provided good nutritional value.  When they discovered that almonds had a long storage life, they found a ready market.  Explorers and traders bartered eagerly for almonds, since they could be shipped long distances without spoiling. 

Soon almonds were growing in the Middle East, Northern Africa, the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe.  Anywhere that was hot and arid was perfect for almond trees.

Bitter almonds contained very potent poison, cyanide.  And the ancients were quick to exploit this lethal component, using bitter almonds to murder many individuals, including Britannicus, the Emperor Claudius, Drusus Julius Caesar, and Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passiens.  These famous Romans died because of cyanide poison obtained from bitter almonds.  And tragically, during WW2, the Nazis used cyanide to destroy millions of Jews.  The book will detail the horrific details of this dark side in the history of the almond.

Spanish missionaries, the Franciscans of the Roman Catholic Church, carried almonds to the New World.  Father Junipero Serra, according to historical records, was the first to try to raise almonds in California.  For the most part, he failed, because he was on the Coast, where it was too cool and too humid.  But he kept trying.  Finally, one hundred years later, Eastern pioneers made their way West, searching for a new chance and a new life.  As they settled in the Central Valley of California, they discovered that the climate and the soil were perfect for almonds.  A whole new industry came into being.

It took another hundred years for almonds to really take off in California.  New crossbreeding, irrigation and harvesting innovations gave the nascent industry a kick in the pants.  Many of these innovations came courtesy of Dutch ingenuity.  For Dutch immigrants embraced almond farming.  Bizarre that people from a country below sea-level had such an impact on almonds.  For example, who came up with the idea of harvesting almonds by “shaking” them off the tree instead of “beating” them off?  And why did almond co-ops arrive and who sold almond growers, who were very conservative, on an idea that was thoroughly and undeniably Marxist?  Answer:  J.P. Dargitz, who was not only an ordained preacher but also a scalawag with an affinity for making money, who had an oratory gift similar to Cicero.  In other words, J.P. was a real charmer.         

Commercial almond farming became a reality in California, and changed the financial and agricultural landscape of the state.

Almonds truly changed the world.  Global production is near l.7 million tons per year.  Of this staggering number, the United States produces 41%.  Almonds are California’s top agricultural export.  In 2003, California exported more than $1 billion dollars worth of almonds.

Almonds also changed the eating habits of the world.  Candy is universally popular, especially if it contains almonds wrapped in nougat and chocolate.  Witness the renown of the Mars bar, and the Almond Joy candy bar. 

Finally, recent salmonella outbreaks have shaken the almond industrial complex to its core.  Is pasteurization the answer?  Or, as the consumer groups shout, is pasteurization “just another government conspiracy to rape our foods of their nutritional value.”