A Broken Body But Unbroken Spirit: The American Chestnut
by Linwood Watson, MD (Haliwa-Saponi)
Talk to any rural old timer about great trees, and the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) will inevitably be mentioned. Many eastern woodland tribes, including the Iroquois, hold the American chestnut as a sacred gift to be cherished and shared among all, which is emblematic of this tree’s importance to human life and the larger forest ecosystem. To say it is a “capstone” species, especially in the hilly/mountainous Appalachian forests, would not be exaggerating. Note that some of our Southeastern/Coastal plain tribes, like the Coharie and Waccamaw-Siouan, live in an environment that is flatter, hotter, less rocky and as such are more pine dominant (atopic for a future blog will be the storied “tar and turpentine trails” running from Southeast NC to Georgia.) The Haliwa-Saponi territory, lies on thefall line between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain and has had more chestnutchestnut influences, along with mountain laurel and rhododendron. In particular, the steep, quick draining, north facing, rocky, acidic clay banks of Fishing Creek, Little Fishing Creek, and Swift Creek are likely to be hospitable to chestnuts.
Even in the most optimal habitat though, the American chestnut met a tremendous misfortune in the early 1900s. An introduced blight from Asia, Cryphonectria parasitica (even sounds gruesome, doesn’t it?), essentially wiped out the American chestnut from dominance, within 40 years. The American Chestnut Foundation (see sources below) estimates that at one point the American chestnut numbered 4 billion (yes, billion!) trees in the Appalachians, meaning roughly 1 out of every 4 trees were likely chestnuts in this region. You don’t have to be a biology major to imagine the crucial importance of this tree to other plants (such as the understory pawpaws), animals, and humans. In fact, one common rural recount is how helpful chestnuts were to late season fattening up of hogs and cattle, since they ripened in late fall. Chestnut leaves were also routinely used for colds and phlegm. Rural people of all ethnicities benefitted tremendously from this stately tree.
Today there are many scientific efforts, ranging from trying to find a naturally occurring blight resistant American chestnut, to genetic analysis trying to take the Chinese chestnut blight resistance and incorporate it into the American chestnut genome. However, to first want to save a threatened species, it helps to first experience what you are missing in the first place. The eyes cannot see what the mind does not know. As we all know, cooking with and eating a food is one of the best ways to see, touch, smell, hear, and taste the food and all its benefits. So, keep on reading for tips on how to best roast chestnuts (in the spirit of the holidays).
Yes, while you may be unable to roast American chestnuts, at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere many orchards, markets and grocery stores have chestnuts that are either imported or locally planted Chinese chestnuts that can fruit. Interestingly, there are Chinese, Japanese, and European chestnuts.
If you purchase some keep them in a breathable paper bag (not plastic) in the fridge until you use them. They can last 1-3 weeks in the fridge.
Chestnut Roasting 101
1. Start your fire in an appropriate place. Campfires are great, but this technique works for firepits, open hearths, and wood stoves.
2. Let the fire settle down ideally into embers. While everyone likes the leaping flames, they lack the steady heat of embers for roasting and can quickly reach out and burn you or your chestnut roasting pan. If you don’t build fires often note it may take 45 minutes or so to get to the ember stage.
3. Use a large diameter, long handled pan. Believe it or not, some companies sell specially designed chestnut roasting pans that have small openings in the pan for even heating.
4. Crucial step here-take the chestnuts and carefully carve an “x” onto the curved/domed side. The “X” should be about a ½ inch across. This allows the roasting chestnut to properly vent and not explode. If you enjoy chestnut roasting, merchants have special “stamper” like tools that safely stamp the “x” into the chestnut for you! As a physician, I reiterate be careful carving the “x” into the domed chestnut side. It is way too easy to slip off the curved surface and stab the palm of your non-dominant hand. Best case scenario is stiches, worst case is tendon rupture and surgery. Try to score the chestnut on a flat surface, not while holding the nut with your other hand. The “x” should go through the hard shell but not into the nut skin/surface.
5. Taking care to not overcrowd the plan and using only one layer of nuts in the pan-no stacking-, place the pan about 4 inches above the embers and check every 10 minutes for doneness. Sources vary in the “typical” roasting time but estimates are usually 20-45 minutes.
6. “Doneness” is checked by resting the pan near the fire off the embers, remove a sample chestnut, let it cool a tad, then peel off the hard shell and paper like skin. You want a soft yellow nut that is similar to a baked potato in consistency. Lots of crunch needs a few more minutes of roasting.
7. Once done, let the chestnuts cool briefly then peel from the shell while still warm. Enjoy, but watch out for kids marauding your stash!
Side note: Don’t’ be intimidated- this is a simple activity that only appears to be complicated when you have to write it out!
chestnutchestnutWhile people associate nuts with fats and oils, a chestnut is unique in that it is mainly carbohydrates and water, and practically no oils. As such, the chestnut is more a grain than nut. This also lends the chestnut to use as flourand many culinary uses (see sources below).
One final botanical pearl needs to be addressed. While it is possible (and prayed for) that some naturally occurring blight resistant American chestnuts are out there, many people mistake American chestnuts for other plants in the Castanea family. These “mimics” include imported Chinese chestnuts, Japanese chestnuts, European chestnuts, and Chinquapins (chinkapins). Other non-chestnut family mimics include chestnut oaks (acorns not chestnuts), beeches, and horse chestnuts (Watch out, horse chestnuts can be harmful!).
Make no mistake, Nature is strong, and she rushes quickly to fill any empty ecological void. However, the American chestnut void is a large one for other plants, animals, humans, and even the soil. While the trunk and nuts are blighted off, note the roots in many American chestnut trees are still alive. We all should mimic the American chestnut, maintain our roots, and use these memories to make new bonds so that in the future, we will arise stronger. Hopefully that emergence will include new American chestnuts soon. So grab some friends, get to safely roasting, and remember this great grandmother tree as you foray into the woods.
1. “The Chestnut Cookbook” by Annie Bhagwandin. 2003. Like the previous persimmon blog source “Persimmons for Everyone” by the Griffiths, this book is a simply amazing source of chestnut recipes, folklore, and practical information by people who raise chestnuts. Again, it is a tour de force of recipes!
2. The American Chestnut Foundation. www.acf.org. One of the scientific leaders trying to combat the chestnut blight. Their website has supreme information on telling true American chestnuts from the imitators.
“Spitjack Chesnut Roasting Guide” at www.spitjack.com. Spitjack is a Massachusetts company that offers tools to assist anytime people, food and fire intersect. The author has no financial interest in Spitjack but has used their products productively.