On a mild morning in November 1979, when a group of students clambered over the walls of the American Embassy in Tehran, I, the modest pistachio, might have been the furthest thing from everyone’s mind. As that day turned into an infamous hostage crisis, few were likely focused on the fact that Iran was by far the largest supplier of pistachios to the United States. Or that the sanctions imposed by President Carter, which included a ban on importing me, meant that you were going to need a new source.
At just a nickel for a dozen of me, I had plenty of American fans back then. I started out as a popular snack among Middle Eastern immigrants in the late 1800s but eventually spread to snackers of all ilk through the bar, bus, and train-station vending machines. You could spot them by their red-tinged fingers, caused by the dye Iranian producers used to cover the imperfections on my shells (harmless splotches from the harvesting methods). But only a minuscule crop of me came from within U.S. borders, specifically California’s Central Valley.
There, in the 1930s, a botanist named William E. Whitehouse, fresh off a tour of Iran’s pistachio orchards had managed to get one seed from one specific variety of tree—called Kerman, after the Iranian city where it grew—to barely take hold. Some 40 years later, from just that one variety, from just that one seed weighing all of a fortieth of an ounce, sprouted all of America’s pistachios.
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