Red-Dyed Pistachios: Are You Still Out There?

That's Nuts

A weekly dose of nutty history, pop culture, and recipes from Lee Zalben, aka The Peanut Butter Guy.

"Pistachio importers would dye the nuts red (and sometimes green) in order to hide the imperfections."



My mom tells a funny story from her childhood about pistachios. She grew up in Philadelphia on what is now a major thoroughfare, but which was, at the time, more of a busy country road. Most of the land around my grandparent's house belonged to a very wealthy, very eccentric old man who lived in a big house down the road and who had a small "shack" near the road where he sold assorted candy, nuts, and other sundries.

My mom loved pistachios—but she was always snacking in between meals and was never hungry for dinner. One day, her mother put her foot down. "Do not stop at Mr. Johnson's shop on your way home from school. No snacking before dinner. Company's coming, and I want you to clean your plate!"

Though generally a very obedient child, she was tempted. Her friend Susie Parks—who she walked home with from school every day—lived right near the shop. She couldn't avoid it.

As she got closer to the shop, she could practically taste the rich, buttery, crunchy, savory and yet slightly sweet pistachios. Defying my grandmother, she went in and bought a small bag. She started eating them as she walked the remaining few blocks home. She got to her house and peeked through the window, surprised to see her mother busy in the kitchen—she was usually out shopping for dinner at this point. She must have gone to the market early today.

She scurried next door and threw the almost empty bag of pistachios into their neighbors trash can, which was waiting to be brought down to the curb. Returning home, she climbed the steps to the front door and walked into the kitchen. Her mother took one look at her and screamed! "YOU WENT AND BOUGHT PISTACHIOS! You're grounded for a week! Go to your room."

How did she know? My mom's mouth was stained red. And so were her fingers.

She forgot about the dye on the pistachios. Ever since, the family has joked about my mom being caught "red handed," defying my grandmother. She didn't find it funny then, but she does now.

I find this story so interesting because I rarely see dyed pistachios in shops anymore. It's kind of like watching an old movie where the plot would never work in today's society without cell phones.

Pistachio shells are naturally a yellowish-tan color. The nuts, native to the Middle East and now grown in many other places including California and New Mexico, used to be harvested by hand, which contributed to some staining and bruising. Pistachio importers would dye the nuts red (and sometimes green) in order to hide the imperfections. Nowadays, pistachio trees are usually harvested by machine which surprisingly, doesn't cause as much damage to the shells and removes the need to dye them, except when marketing them to "traditionalists" for whom the dye (and subsequent scrubbing of the hands) is an important pistachio-eating ritual.

So do you go nuts for pistachios? Got a favorite recipe? Do you prefer them au natural or dyed? And has that dye ever gotten you caught for eating pistachios on the sly?