Get Outta Town: In southern New Mexico, a giant pistachio beckons

by Nick Gonzales

Since the dawn of history, people have loved snacks. One snack in particular was a favorite of both the biblical Queen of Sheba and the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who had it planted in the kingdom’s hanging gardens. It became a favorite in Greece after Alexander the Great sent it back from Persia, where it was known as the “smiling nut” (in China, it is the “happy nut”). It made its way to the rest of Europe under the Roman emperor Tiberius — it’s featured throughout the 5th-century Roman cookbook “Apicius.”

That snack is … the pistachio.

If you’re now thinking that, given its long and storied history and importance to human civilization, you need to bow down before a pistachio and praise it, we know just the place.

Standing just north of Alamogordo, New Mexico, on U.S. Route 54, the World’s Largest Pistachio belongs to the giant-object genre of roadside attractions. The monument is 30-feet tall, and was made with 5 yards of concrete and 35 gallons of paint.

The giant pistachio was created and unveiled in 2008 by Tim McGinn as a memorial to his father, Tom McGinn, who had died the previous year. Tom was the founder of PistachioLand, aka McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch and Winery, where the monument stands today.

Naturally, there’s a gift shop to capitalize on the tourists the pistachio attracts off the road. It sells the kinds of snacks — including homemade pistachio milkshakes and chili-chocolate pistachio brittle that ancient monarchs and emperors would have killed for (and also wine).

Speaking of pistachio-based snacking, a 2011 study showed that people who shelled their own pistachios consumed 41 % fewer calories than people who ate pre-shelled pistachios. Some food for thought, just in case you decide to grab some to go at the colossal New Mexican fruit.

Oh yeah, and even though you’ll find it labeled as such in the grocery store, pistachios, like cashews and almonds, aren’t nuts — they’re drupes, or elongated seeds. They’re more closely related to cherries and nectarines than they are to real nuts. If peanuts are famously legumes and these drupes aren’t nuts, we can hear you asking, what the heck even are true nuts? Are nuts a lie?! Hazelnuts, chestnuts, and acorns, it turns out, are the real ones — you know, the types of things you’re almost certainly not going to snack on during a road trip through the Land of Enchantment because you have to crack them open using brute force or roast them or something. (It turns out “nuts,” at least botanically speaking, suck as an easy-to-eat snack food.)

In case you were wondering (and we know you were) how pistachios can help you through our current troubling times, early in the COVID-19 pandemic the city of Alamogordo translated social distancing guidelines into figures locals would recognize and understand. If you’re trying to keep 6 feet of distance from people to avoid spreading the virus, it may be helpful to picture 72 pistachios between you and them (because the nuts are about an inch long). That’s about four roadrunners or 12 green chiles, by the way.

Nick Gonzales

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