Keeping the Christmas Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire


KNOW MALTA by Peter Grima/flickr

Chestnuts—those nuggets of starch, hard-shelled and furry-skinned, impossible to peel or yielding depending on their whims—aren't for everyone, but there's no denying that they are a classic Christmas nibble. The holiday season is one of the few times the glossy nuts surface into the public consciousness, in part because of pop culture: Think "The Christmas Song," better known as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," here immortalized by Big Bird and my favorite Muppet, the Swedish Chef, in 1987's A Muppet Family Christmas (song begins at the 1:20 mark):

One reason we don't hear much about chestnuts year-round is Diaporthe parasitica, the chestnut tree blight, a fungus that wiped out nearly all of America's mature chestnut trees by the mid-1900s. But more recently, scientists have sought to revive the American chestnut—a struggle that was the topic of a 2003 Atlantic article by our very own Corby Kummer. Here's Corby's story about the fight to save a little piece of Christmas:

This month hundreds of volunteers along the Appalachian Trail will trade excited e-mails detailing when they plan to pollinate their chestnut trees with special pollen—one more step in a twenty-year effort to restore the American chestnut to its majestic place in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic forest. Until a century ago billions of American chestnuts came into flower before the start of July, making the hillsides they favor look buried in snow. As tall as the tallest oak, with a diameter of up to ten feet in a clear field, the chestnut made up fully a quarter of the forests in its native range, from southern Canada to Georgia.

In America as in Europe, the chestnut was the "bread tree," providing a staple that could be boiled and mashed to replace potato as a starch, ground into flour to make noodles or bread (a favorite use of the Cherokee, who made chestnut cornbread), or eaten out of hand, either raw or roasted, for a nutritious, filling snack. In October the vast stands provided an almost limitless supply of free food, dropping nuts that glistened like gemstones and fed not only people but also wild turkeys, pigs (whose ham made Virginia famous), and other animals that were themselves important foods. Chestnuts, easy to dry, gave Appalachian families a source of income and a way to survive the winter.

Creamy, slightly crunchy, delicately sweet without seeming starchy or bland, fresh American chestnuts taste almost like fresh water chestnuts, to which they aren't related. This was one of several revelations I had recently when I tasted "Americanoid" chestnuts, as the enthusiastic grower calls his hybrid American-Asian nuts—an advance sample of what all those volunteers are working toward (and available to anyone by phone or Internet order). Often no bigger than large marbles, American chestnuts have a relatively high ratio of surface area to volume, which enables them to convert starch to sugar faster than do the European and Asian chestnuts we are used to—chestnuts that have been bred to be big. American chestnuts are intensely flavored nuggets by comparison.

Continue reading Corby's article, "A New Chestnut," from the June 2003 issue of The Atlantic.