Origins of a Nut

By Christopher Zoukis

There are two primary types of almonds:  sweet almonds and bitter almonds.  Sweet almonds are the nuts people like to eat, appearing in salads, cereals and candy bars.  Bitter almonds are grown for their oil, which is used as a flavoring and as a base in cosmetic products.  Bitter almonds, as the name suggests, are bitter in taste.  This is the result of amygdalin, which is a glycoside that breaks down to form prussic acid.  When bitter almonds are processed for their oil, the prussic acid or cyanide is removed so the oil can be used for flavoring.  Image courtesy www.puppenhaus-shop.de

No one knows for sure where almonds originated.  One theory states that almonds evolved in Asia and came from the same primitive stock as the peach.  The peach moved eastward into China, where it flourished at lower elevations with high humidity.  Whereas the almond moved in the opposite direction, moving westerly on the edges of the deserts and mountain slopes to the Mediterranean basin. 

Almonds make numerous appearances in the Bible.  When the patriarch Jacob found himself living in the middle of a worldwide famine (circa 1500 B.C.), he ordered his sons down to Egypt.  There they were to buy grain from the Pharaoh.  Jacob, being a cagey businessman, knew that providing the Pharaoh with a gift might ensure the success of the trip.  In his younger days, Jacob had been a smooth operator, and he knew how the world worked.  So he instructed his eleven sons to put together a package of luxury items:  “balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds.”[1]  The sons did so and made the long journey to Egypt, where, unbeknownst to them, their baby brother Joseph was still alive.  Not only was Joseph alive, he was now the second most powerful man in Egypt.  The little dreamer the brothers had despised and sold into slavery years ago stood between them and starvation.  The fact that almonds were included in the gift, along with myrrh, which was extremely valuable in the ancient world, meant almonds were still considered a potent and valuable delicacy in Egypt.

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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 golona.blogspot.com

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.

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