June 08, 2006

Pistachios = Love

Of course they're chock full of tasty goodness, but you may notice that I *always* have pistachios at my house available for public consumption. A recent visitor noted that particular propensity of mine, and queried me as to the origin of this nut-oriented quirk.

In that charming way I have of having a deep meaningful reason behind the simplest of choices (and conversely, no depth whatsoever supporting my most meaningful ones) I present to you my thinking on the subject of pistachios -- they are responsible for for human civilization as we know it. Or near enough as makes no difference.

Let me take you way back. I'm talking back - like, oh, 11,600 years or so to the end of the last great cold snap. Nomadic humans have spread throughout the world, coaxing a substinence existence out of a stingy land that had only recently defrosted. What their lives lacked in reliability and dependability they made up for in portability, as their entire tribe could pick up and relocate like a herd of gray-haired retirees in brand new Airstreams thumbing their noses at ole' man winter.

And this worked well, because in an unpredictable, pre-industrialized world we couldn't count on technology and infrastructure to defend us against the vagaries of nature like we can today. But it didn't allow for much growth, and other than some cultural and artistic development, we were pretty much just maintaining for quite some time. Until the pistachio came into our lives.

After the end of the last ice age forests spread rapidly, and in the warm, dry climate of the near and middle east the pistachio tree flourished. I'm not talking one, I'm talking millions. How many nuts are on a single tree, how many trees in an acre of pistachio trees, and how many acres to cover Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan? It's raining pistachios baby! And not those gross red-dyed ones, but healthy, happy, beige ones bursting with nutty goodness.

Picture the scene - a group of a few families, a small tribe of 30 - 60 people set up a seasonal encampment in a new, lush, warm and dry valley.
The men wake up bright and early to go rustle up some grub, spending a tremendous amount of energy to stalk and capture prey, dress the meat, and return it to the campsite. The women-folks spend their time tending to the camp, and gathering what food they can close-by. Acorns are popular and oak trees are plentiful, but the amount of effort necessary for one woman to grind, leech, and pulp enough acorns to feed merely herself, not to mention a family, is prohibitive. And when you're done you've got acorn mush. Big whoop.

Meanwhile, the easily collected, easily processed, easily transported pistachio was a practically inexhaustible supply of low-cost (in terms of effort vs. reward) high-fat, high-calorie food. This allowed for our intrepid nomads to settle down for a bit in the same place, much longer than they otherwise would have been able to.

And when settlements are inhabited for longer periods of time then suddenly other possibilities emerge: the occasional cultivation of wild grasses becomes agriculture and the sporadic hunting of animals evolves into the domestication of animals. A permanent address also allows for
the storage and bartering of surpluses on a somewhat regular schedule, which increases cooperation and communication between far-flung tribes, which increases populations. But most importantly, when everyone isn't worried about where their next meal is coming from, when a single person can readily provide enough food for several, then the most important societal development becomes possible - the division of labor.

Would humanity have thrived without pistachios, certainly. But wherever the pistachio grew in abundance, it gave the people who made use of it a powerful head-start. The Fertile Crescent emerges from the rest of the pack as the place to be, pre-historically, because its Neolithic settlements had what China, the Indus river valley, and Meso-America lacked.

I celebrate the pistachio because of what it made possible for our ancestors. I honor the pistachio, even those defiant little fuckers that don't want to open up, because they were there for us when we needed them.

So, when engaging in the act of hospitality -- one of humanity's oldest tribal rituals -- I choose to include one of humanity's most significant tribal foodstuffs, the noble pistachio.


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