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Dear Matt:

Now that I am approaching the big 5-0, there is a question burning in my mind. As a kid growing up in San Diego, I could never get away with sneaking pistachios because my fingers were a dead giveaway -- bright red dye from the shells. What was that red dye all about, and why was it discontinued? Now my kids can eat all of mine and get away with it. What gives?

-- Life Isn't Fair, El Cajon (the mere fact that I live in El Cajon proves that)

Ah, pistachios. Food of the gods. I'm sure when you're eating them, you don't even care that you live in El Cajon. M.A. has a small shrine to pistachios in the TV room. Right next to the one for fresh cherries and tangerines. Though, if you didn't buy so many pistachios, you could probably afford to live in Rancho Santa Fe. But who cares? Food of the gods.

When pistachios were first imported from Iran and Turkey, they had been processed in the traditional way: brined, then roasted. The nut itself has a red husk, and the red from the husk would color the naturally tan shells during brining. When California growers started selling domestic pistachios, they attempted to meet consumer expectations with artificially red dyed shells. They stopped when red dye took a hit from consumer watchdogs. Most of the nuts we buy here are California grown; the fat, sweet old-school pistachios are from Iran. But U.S. pistachio growers convinced the feds to impose a 300% import duty on them, so it's just impractical to sell many of the Iranian nuts here. You'd have to mortgage that house in El Cajon to afford them.

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