Seems like every aisle at Costco was featuring some Christmas related item, and nuts were on display. I saw black walnuts, almonds, pecans, and peanuts in the shell, but the most striking display, just next to the cash registers, was this tower of roasted chestnuts. Who isn’t familiar with Nat King Cole’s smooth opening, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. . ,” the start of “The Christmas Song.”
Have you ever roasted a chestnut? I haven’t. I did a little digging today to find out why those nuts in particular are part of the Christmas tradition. I learned that chestnuts were a food staple grown even before rice in ancient countries. References to chestnuts appear twice in the King James version of the Bible. In fact, in some places, it was ground as flour. Chestnuts are the perfect food: lower calories than walnuts and almonds, no cholesterol, no gluten, comparable in carbohydrates to wheat. Many a civilization has lived on chestnuts both during hard times and as part of a regular diet. The nuts were so common, they were considered a poor man’s food.
It’s hard to imagine that just 100 years ago, one quarter of the Appalachian forest was made up of the majestic chestnut–a tall, fast-growing hardwood. Most early American builders used the chestnut interchangeably with oak to build. I wonder what that might have looked like?
While the various species of chestnut in Asia co-evolved with diseases, making those species resistant, the chestnut blight struck the American and European chestnut in the early 1900’s, wiping out four billion American chestnut trees. Since the early twentieth century, growers have been working to establish a hybrid tree that can bring the chestnut back to its former glory.
Back to the chestnuts at Costco. I read quite a few instructions about the tradition of roasting them on an open fire, and I’m linking directions here from Epicurious.com, in the event you want to give it a try.
Here’s a great future Jeopardy! fact: The Hundred Horse Chestnut tree in Italy is considered the world’s oldest chestnut tree, dating somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years old.
Here’s an additional article about chestnuts published last year in the Times Union.