Rituals to revive or R.I.P.?
Traditional Christmas songs and literature refer to mysterious foods we imagine but have never eaten — or maybe even seen — for ourselves. In this holiday series, Inland 360 explores a few of these foods to discover what they are and why we sing about them.
Here’s the riches-to-rags story of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”
Scroll down to the bottom of the story for three easy steps to making them.
For 72 years we’ve heard about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” in the holiday standard, “The Christmas Song.”
However, as holiday traditions go, it’s not one you find people doing very often.
The song was written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells and recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946. Coincidentally this was around the time the tree species found itself on the brink of extinction in America. Since then, the song has been covered by many artists. Who knows how many of them ever ate a roasted chestnut.
When I decided to do this story for Inland 360’s series about foods from holiday songs and literature, I realized I had no idea what a chestnut even looked like.
Before you rush into your backyard with a basket because you have a chestnut tree, you should know that there are two kinds of chestnuts, and the variety growing in many backyards and parks are the toxic kind. They are called horse chestnuts, and their husk is mostly smooth with a few warts. In comparison, edible chestnuts have a spiny husk. Here’s a link to other ways to tell the difference.
However, most of us forage for nuts at the grocery store, which is where I went looking for the bulk bins of unshelled nuts that appear during the holidays. The first store I visited was Rosauers in Lewiston, which had a variety of nuts in the fruits section. They weren’t labeled, so I used my phone to find a picture of a chestnut. I selected the kind that best matched, although they seemed much smaller than the ones in the photo.
Chestnuts should be scored with an “X” with a sharp knife before cooking or they will explode. Some recipes also advise soaking them. I soaked mine for two days. When I went to cut them, it was like trying to saw through a rock. I asked my husband for help. When he couldn’t do it, we realized something was amiss. I’d bought hazelnuts, not chestnuts. We roasted them in a tin foil packet on the grill for 20 minutes, cracked them open and ate them. They were delicious.
I went in search of chestnuts again, this time to the fruit section at WinCo. The nuts there were, thankfully, labeled. When selecting chestnuts you should look for the largest ones you can find, with shiny skins that don’t pull away from the shell when squeezed and released.
I brought them home, and we built a fire. Scoring them with a knife was much easier (we skipped the soaking, as my deadline for this story now loomed). We wrapped them in a foil packet and placed it in hot coals for about 25 minutes. When we pulled it out, the nuts had split open at the “X” where they’d been scored. We peeled off the skin and shell with our hands. They tasted naturally sweet, soft and buttery. A couple had cooked too long and were too tough to eat. We also should have shaken the packet a few times while they were cooking, as some had burned edges.
Following one recipe’s advice, we dipped them in a mixture of butter, sugar and cinnamon. My verdict is, roasted chestnuts need to make a comeback. Cookies, fudge and other processed sweets have come to rule the holidays, much to our despair come January. Roasting chestnuts is a fun activity, and the results don’t leave you feeling like you have a belly “like a bowl full of jelly.” Chestnuts are a good source of iron, potassium and other vitamins and minerals, along with healthy fats. They also have a much lower fat content than other nuts.
Why did roasted chestnuts fall out of favor?
Roasted chestnuts are a popular food in Europe, and they once were in the United States too.
More than 4 billion native American chestnut trees grew in the eastern U.S. more than a century ago, according to the American Chestnut Foundation. Ripening coincided with the fall-winter holiday season. Early 1900s newspaper articles showed train cars loaded with chestnuts arriving in major cities, where the nuts were sold fresh or roasted.
Within 40 years the chestnut blight destroyed the forests. It has been called the greatest ecological disaster to strike forests in history. The American chestnut is considered functionally extinct by the United States Department of Agriculture. Because the blight fungus does not kill the tree’s root system, the species survives as a shrub by sending up sprouts that grow vigorously in logged or otherwise disturbed areas. They eventually succumb to the blight and die back to the ground.
The bulk of U.S. chestnuts now come from introduced species or imported nuts, according to the foundation, which is working to restore native forests.
How to roast chestnuts
- When selecting chestnuts, look for the largest ones you can find, heart-shaped, with shiny shells, no blemishes and a weighty feel. When you press on them, the skin should be tight and not pull away from the shell.
- Using a sharp paring knife, make an X-shaped cut into the fat, rounded middle of each nut.
- If you are roasting them on an open fire, place the nuts in a roasting container, like an open fire popcorn popper, cast iron skillet or a tin foil packet. Nuts can also be roasted on the grill or in an oven at 300 to 325 F. Roast or bake until the skins open, about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your heat source. Nuts will cook more evenly if they are moved by shaking the pan or stirring often.
- If you like, serve the nuts dipped in olive oil or melted butter, sugar and cinnamon.