Although Jack Frost is nipping at my nose, it is the thought of chestnuts roasting on an open fire that is really getting me in the holiday mood. Thank you Mel Torme and Nat King Cole!
Any chestnuts eaten, however, will not be from the Island and probably not even from the United States. Most likely those holiday chestnuts were imported from Japan, China, Spain or Italy as less than one per cent of the world’s total chestnut crop is grown in the U.S. Harvested chestnuts generally come from one of the four main species of trees (American, European, Chinese and Japanese).
American chestnuts were once a ubiquitous tree in this country. Henry David Thoreau enjoyed the “boundless chestnut woods.” And it was once said that “chestnut forests were so thick a squirrel could jump from chestnut tree to chestnut tree from Georgia to New York without ever touching the ground.” This tree accounted for up to a quarter of all hardwoods in Appalachia until it was decimated by a fungal (again, fungus for the third week in a row!) blight. The chestnut blight came to the U.S. in 1904 on imported wood and within 50 years, four billion chestnut trees died from this disease.
This is a true tree tragedy, almost a complete genus-cide for the American chestnut tree that someday may be remedied.
In 1983, the American Chestnut Foundation was started with a mission dedicated to the restoration of the American chestnut. There, scientists are determined to breed a chestnut blight fungus-resistant strain of tree. They have had some success and are beginning to plant resistant American chestnuts in national forest lands. Say a prayer at your holiday table for these trees‘ success.
Other chestnut tree lovers would appreciate the scientists’ efforts.
John Evelyn, a 17th century gardener and diarist, insisted that chestnuts are “delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned.” And in a Pittsfield, Massachusetts publication, Henry Ward Beecher noted that “Nature was in a good mood when the chestnut tree came forth.”
Chestnuts are nutritious nuts, having more benefits than the average nut roaster might know. They are an important food source for humans and wildlife alike, as they are very high in starch (twice the starch of a potato). And unlike most other nuts, they are low in both calories and fat, although according to ancient physicians Dioscorides and Galen, a diet high in chestnuts can produce significant flatulence.
Best of all, they are versatile. Chestnuts can be eaten raw, but will be high in tannic acid. And of course, they can be roasted, although if not scored they explode. (Shakespeare referred to the sound of chestnuts exploding in The Taming of the Shrew.)
More creative chefs made flour from the nuts for bread and pancakes, chestnut jam and nut cream, and used them for thickeners and sweeteners in many dishes. Corsicans especially had to be inventive since it was a nuptial tradition to serve chestnuts in 22 ways for the marrying couple.
Alas, in America we must subsist on imported chestnuts. The sad story of the demise of this well-loved nut is enough to depress even the most festive holiday reveler. Enjoy those foreign chestnuts this holiday season and take heart: thanks to the American Chestnut Foundation, this terrific tree will hopefully make a comeback!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.