I was bit by the local food bug as a freshman in college when I was introduced to the farming and eating culture of Northern New England. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with understanding the process of producing food, from field to store to table. Last fall, I was intrigued by the history of a food that was very new, at least to me: the “Christmas staple,” chestnuts.
As a kid growing up in suburban Southern California I never really knew what “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” meant. I knew the song, and I understood that anything roasting on an open fire would add a wonderfully warm and festive aura to a Christmas party. I could picture plenty of other kinds of nuts: walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, but not chestnuts–and why were they so important to creating an iconic Christmas scene anyway?
Well, it makes sense as to why I had never seen, eaten or heard of chestnuts as a kid. Most chestnuts sold in the United States have been imported from Europe, and there are very few chestnut groves in production in North America today. My family didn’t necessarily follow local food eating practices, but chestnuts were very foreign to our California soils, and they weren’t exactly a staple of our modern diets (luckily avocados and oranges, both local delicacies, were).
However, before the turn of the 20th century, chestnuts were a staple of some American diets. Mostly those who lived amongst these great hardwood trees in the Eastern Appalachian forests. Chestnut trees were prized for their straight, hardwood lumber and the nutritional value of their fruit. Prized. The Christmas Song kind of makes sense in this context, except for that the song dates to 1944, and by that time most of the American chestnut trees were gone. Blight was introduced by an Asian chestnut tree at the turn of the century and very soon after the American trees fell one by one, either from infection or preemptive harvest.
Now this I learned from a college ecology class. So, you might imagine my surprise when my housemate’s German mother, who was visiting this September, came into the house one day with a basket full of…chestnuts. “Aren’t these practically extinct in the U.S.?” I asked her. “Well, I don’t know,” she replied, “But there’s a million of them all over your lawn.” I went out to inspect, and sure enough there were tons of spiky seed pods littering our lawn, and I had to take her word for it that they really were chestnuts.
The mystery of the tree can be easily deciphered. The chestnut tree in my backyard is of an Asian variety that is resistant to the strain of blight that caused the American chestnut to cease to exist. It was probably purposefully planted there twenty or thirty years ago by a conscientious homeowner who knew that he wanted chestnuts as part of his home orchard. The Asian chestnut trees apparently don’t produce as large or as sweet of fruit as the American trees did. But I still delighted in this new and enlightening experience, finally having the correct image to accompany Nat King Cole’s croon.
Following my housemate’s mother’s guidance, we roasted up a whole bunch of chestnuts that week and experimented with them in a variety of different dishes. The most successful dish was to roast them, unshelled, with other starchy vegetables. Their texture and composition is not like other nuts. They are higher in carbohydrates than fat, and, to me, most closely resembled a sweet potato. Really, this special tree nut deserves a category all to itself.
Michaela Wood is a very recent, very broke graduate from Marlboro College in the hills of Southern Vermont. She loves dark chocolate, kale, and taco night in the dining hall.
Makes a bunch
Up to two lbs raw, whole chestnuts*
*Where to find chestnuts: My tree has long since stopped producing fruit, but I also live in the frozen North, and other random trees in warmer parts of the country might still be dropping fruit. My co-op has been selling them since Thanksgiving. They are imported from Europe.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Make a small slit in the hard shells of each chestnut. This step is vital in allowing the cooking nut to release steam from inside the shell. No slit=Exploding chestnuts=No fun oven cleaning.
Spread the chestnuts evenly over a cookie sheet and pop them in the oven.
Allow chestnuts to cook for at least 20 minutes.
After letting the nuts cool, their hard brown shells will need to be peeled, revealing the starchy, yellow and edible inside. Eat them as a snack by themselves or experiment by adding them to any of your favorite winter stews, soups and roasts.