Whatever happened to “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”? I found the answer but in an unexpected place: Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Overstory,” which features a chapter that elucidates the tragic demise of the American chestnut tree.
Nicknamed the “redwood of the East,” the 100-foot “king of the forest” once dominated the tree cover across more than 200 million acres in its natural range, from Maine to Georgia, from the East Coast to the Ohio River Valley.
In 1904, an examination of ailing chestnut trees at the Bronx Zoo revealed an infecting fungus that researchers named Cryphonectria parasitica. They determined it had arrived in the United States sometime in the late 1800s, on imported Japanese chestnut trees that had developed resistance to the blight. Their American cousins, however, had none.
The new invader continued to spread through the defenseless tree population, causing necrotic lesions in the bark that would eventually destroy the tree. By the 1960s, nearly 4 billion American chestnut trees had been taken out.
Not only was the chestnut tree a centerpiece for forest ecology, but it also worked its roots into the human world. Native Americans found medicines in the leaves and bark, and food sources in the nuts. European settlers built cabins and cabinets with the wood, brewed teas with the leaves, tanned leather with the bark tannins, and even brewed “coffee” with the nuts.
Raw chestnuts are typically bitter, but what made American nuts so notable was that sometimes they were so sweet that even the raw ones could be eaten. They were not only sweet and delicious, but also high in fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and antioxidants, as well as amino and fatty acids. Such was their abundance that beyond sustenance, excess nuts provided extra earnings for farmers.
How sad, I thought, nostalgic for something I’d never eaten. But then on a trip to Nashville, I ordered a pint of King Chestnut at Tennessee Brew Works—an American chestnut brown ale.
Wait. Were they not wiped out?
Saving the Chestnut
LSAs, Large Surviving Americans, still exist, but are few and far between. These trees are “functionally extinct, an important distinction,” said Sara Fitzsimmons, director of restoration at The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). That means the trees still exist in some form, but they have lost their significant role in the ecosystem, and there are no trees in the wild producing a viable next generation. TACF is committed to reversing that situation and bringing the King back to its reign in the forest.
The fungus kills everything from the ground up, Fitzsimmons told me, but the roots survive and can send up shoots from a stump—only to be attacked again. New growth rarely results in anything thicker than a thumb or taller than 20 feet.
“On the extreme western and southern parts of the range, we are seeing an exhaustion of that root supply. So we are losing trees, and that’s troubling,” she said. “Some unique and adaptive populations are still being lost.”
Scientists and growers are doing what they can to bring back the endemic chestnuts.
Crossing a Chinese chestnut with an American tree brings blight resistance, but changes the tree and its nuts. Backcrossing the resulting tree with an American tree can ultimately produce trees that are 15/16 American, according to Fitzsimmons, but still retain that blight resistance.
TACF counts over a half-million of such trees in a variety of locations, primarily experimental orchards, but research data indicates the amount of blight resistance has been mixed.
Nature itself is fighting fire with fire: In European chestnut trees, a virus has been infecting the killing fungus itself, weakening its ability to spread and giving the trees a fighting chance. Results of infecting the blight with this virus in American trees have thus far been mixed.
Scientists have successfully inserted a gene for blight-resistance into seeds taken from an LSA, but the resulting American chestnut trees are currently undergoing a lengthy and comprehensive USDA approval process for public release.
Chestnuts in the Kitchen
Yet we still have chestnuts. In the United States, there are more than 900 chestnut growers growing Chinese trees, American Chinese crosses, and a few other cultivars. The nuts are available in stores and online, and come whole or processed as flour or chestnut chips, nuts baked and thinly sliced. The Nashville beer I had was brewed with such chips produced by growers in Michigan, likely from European Japanese hybrid trees.
While TACF’s interest lies primarily in restoring our forests, foodies also love chestnuts in the kitchen. The soft texture and strong flavor work well in savory stuffing. Chestnuts are naturally gluten-free, and the flour is great for breads, cakes, fritters, and pancakes. Some traditional Italian recipes use the flour in tagliatelle or gnocchi, or the nuts themselves as filling in calzoncelli di castagne, the cookie equivalent of ravioli.
Filling that demand would be harder with the native nuts.
“The American chestnut is so small that you need so many of them … to make it commercially feasible,” said Fitzsimmons. On average, it might take 80 American nuts to make a pound, whereas for the same mass, only 30 Chinese nuts are required, or even just a dozen of the cultivar known as Colossal. Thus, the American variety may be best suited for connoisseurs—or a return to roasting them over an open fire for the holidays.
“Eventually, we hope to have American chestnuts for people to use,” Fitzsimmons said. The efforts of scientists and growers may one day have us foraging for them once again in the forest.
Roasting Without an Open Fire
Raw chestnuts are bitter, but the roasting process brings out the sweetness.
Carefully cut an “X” in the top of the nuts with a sharp knife. Put them in a pot of cold water and heat it to a boil. Strain them out of the pot and lay them flat side down on a baking sheet. Then heat the oven to 425 degrees F and roast them for 15 to 20 minutes. The nuts will soften and the skins will break open to make them easier to peel.
RECIPE: Stuffing With Chestnuts
- 2 cups chestnut pieces (canned, or from 1 pound fresh chestnuts)
- 1-pound loaf of quality bread (consider mixing dark and light varieties)
- 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 4 tablespoons butter, divided
- 2 small yellow onions, finely chopped
- 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 pint half and half
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme (or 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped)
- 2 teaspoons dried sage (or 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped)
- 2 teaspoons dried rosemary (or 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped)
- 1 handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt to taste
If you are using fresh chestnuts, roast them as indicated above, or simply boil them: place them in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes, until you can pierce the nuts with a knife. Let them cool a bit, then peel them and quarter them.
Cut or tear the bread into one-inch cubes and bake at 200 degrees F until completely dry.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a small saucepan, heat the stock and 2 tablespoons butter until simmering.
In a Dutch oven over medium heat, sauté the onions and celery with a dash of salt and the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter until soft, about 5 minutes, adding the garlic for the last couple minutes just to release the aroma. Next, mix in the toasted bread, followed by the heated stock and butter. Stir in the half and half and mix again.
In a bowl, mix together the eggs, chestnuts, herbs, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Add to the Dutch oven, folding it in without completely breaking up all the bread.
Place the uncovered Dutch oven in the preheated oven and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the stuffing sets and shows a golden surface.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey,” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com