Thursday, December 18, 2003
Pistachios: a Good Thing Has Gotten Better
By ROGER M. GRACE
Many foods just aren’t as good as they used to be. But a few have gotten better.
An example is pistachios.
When I was a youngster, pistachios came in shells that were one of two colors: red or white.
The red pistachios were messy to eat. The dye would get all over your fingers.
There would, supposedly, be no reason to touch the shells to your lips, given that these nuts, when they’re ripe, are naturally cracked at the narrow end. That’s the theory. Inevitably, however, some of them would need be cracked by use of the teeth. Doing that with the red pistachios would result in red lips, and doing it with the salt-coated white pistachios could lead to the skin under the lips puffing.
It was worth it; that distinctive green nutmeat was delicious.
It’s hard to imagine anyone reaching maturity who had not sampled this tasty nut. It was readily available in small plastic sacks at candy counters.
Yet, I found that my friend Bob Work (since deceased), had never tasted a pistachio. Bob was the publisher of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, and I cannot imagine how, in the course of a phone conversation with the head honcho of a rival publication, the subject of pistachios came up. Anyway, I walked a block south to Grand Central Market and got a bag of pistachios, and had it sent over to Bob.
A few weeks later, he telephoned and read an article to me. It was about the copious supply of pistachios that was now coming from California producers.
The article explained that the pistachios that had been sold through the years were imported from the Middle East. They were blemished, and red dye was used to cover flaws. The ones that were really blotched were sprayed with salt.
The California pistachios were larger, and smooth enough that they were marketed au naturale, with no dye or salt covering the light tan shells, the article advised.
Although California producers entered the market in 1976, my conversation with Bob Work took place probably in 1978.
Since then, California has become the pistachio supplier to the nation (about 98 percent of the supply), with virtually no imports coming from the Middle East. We might need their oil, but not their nuts.
Pistachios have been consumed for a great many centuries. In her book, “Food in History” (Stein & Day, 1973), Reay Tannahill reports that excavations have shown that tribes in the Near East gathered pistachios as far back as 20,000 B.C.
Other evidence indicates that these nuts were consumed in Turkey as early as 7,000 B.C. The Queen of Sheba (who reigned over Ethiopia a thousand years B.C.), reportedly requisitioned the entire pistachio output in Assyria for the palace. Pistachios are mentioned in the Old Testament. (Genesis 43:11.)
Experimental plantings took place in California in the latter part of the 19th Century, but if commercial production ensued, it was not meaningful. In 1929, scientist William Whitehouse spent six months in Persia (now Iran), and the following year, planted pistachio trees in Chico as part of a federally funded project. It took awhile for the trees to mature, and feet dragged, but eventually pistachio farming became a California industry.
California producers do not follow the time-honored but infirm harvesting procedures used in the Middle East. There, the pistachios fall to the ground and remain a few days there until they are gathered. It’s while encased in their hulls that they became stained. Modern farmers here pluck the nuts from the trees, extricating them from the hulls within a day—eliminating pistachio acne.
Good news for us pistachio addicts is that we’re ingesting a healthful food. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration announced July 15 that it was authorizing the pistachio industry to make this claim:
“Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as pistachios, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
The same claim is allowed for walnuts (also provided to the nation by California producers), almonds, pecans, and hazelnuts.
Ironically, the claim can’t be made by sellers of cashews (which come from India) though those nuts are in the same family as pistachios. But, also in that motley family is poison ivy.
Until quite recently, there were no “flavors” of pistachios. Pistachios were simply pistachio flavored, plus salt.
Nowadays, there are pistachios that are shot with flavor coatings—not to conceal blemishes, but to boost flavor.
Can the delectable flavor of a pistachio be enhanced? Sure. Spices have been used for centuries to boost the tang of foods.
While I favor garlic flavored pistachios, other flavorings are available, such as lemon-chili.
Some things do get better.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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