Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? More like, exploding in my oven! Come for the holiday cheer, stay for the junior high humor.
Ahh, chestnuts…the thought of them probably conjures up something like this, am I right?
Relaxing by the hearth as the rich aroma of roasted nuts fills your nostrils, wrapped in a fleece blanket, sipping decadent hot cocoa, basking in the warm glow of Christmas tree lights…
To most of us, especially here in the US, chestnuts are a holiday abstraction. This classic Christmas song brings comfort and joy during a period as the nights get longer and colder, when all you desire is to stuff your face and hibernate.
The true story of chestnuts is anything but warm and fuzzy. The reality is sharp and painful. In fact, chestnuts are assholes. They grow inside prickly nut-sacks that hurt like hell if you accidentally step on one. They also bloom ugly, stringy “flowers” during the hottest days of summer which smell like death. Not to mention, chestnut trees spew metric tons of leaves in the yard and into the gutters.
However, life has not been easy for the American chestnut tree. In the early 20th century, there were over 4 billion chestnut trees growing in the states, according to the American Chestnut Foundation. Aside from everyone and their squirrel trying to get a piece of DEEZ NUTS, some douchebag brought a fungal disease called the “Chestnut Blight” from Asia in the early 20th century. This invasive pathogen wiped out nearly all the trees by the mid-century. The American Chestnut tree is now considered “functionally extinct.” Most species of chestnuts that grow here are of the Asian or European variety.
The famed “Christmas Song” was written in 1946, inspired by experiences my grandparents had of harvesting and roasting chestnuts. Yet for us Millennials, our only exposure to chestnuts is a Chestnut Praline latte from Starbucks (better than the Pumpkin Spice, in my opinion). So when I moved into my new house around Christmas of 2016, I unwittingly picked up a spiny bastard hidden in a pile of leaves with my bare hands while cleaning my yard, and it freaking HURT, man! I wanted to know what the hell kind of tree was dropping these God-forsaken things on my property.
After pounding “tree that grows weaponized tennis balls” into Google, I realized I had encountered a chestnut tree. It actually grows in my neighbor’s yard, but half the tree canopy extends onto our property and turns my backyard into a minefield. I had second thoughts about taking a chainsaw to my neighbor’s tree. If I could, in fact, eat them, perhaps having to fill three large garbage cans of spiny bastards every fall would be worth it…
However, not all chestnuts are edible. I needed to ensure that the chestnuts that grew in my yard were not poisonous. There are several species of chestnut-like plants which, if eaten raw, could cause ” vomiting, diarrhea, inflammation of mucous membranes, fever, stupor, muscle weakness and twitching, hemolysis, and respiratory paralysis” according this report in the FDA’s Poisonous Plants database.
The following September (2017), I decided I would harvest the chestnuts as a consolation prize for the pain and suffering caused by their spiny casings. I knew nothing about cooking or harvesting chestnuts. I figured I would just pick a few that fell on the ground and store them in a glass jar in the kitchen until the holiday season because who wants to roast chestnuts on an open fire when it’s 85 degrees outside?
Well, I learned the hard way that chestnuts actually rot if they are not stored in the fridge. They also like a bit of moisture while storing, so they do well in a Zip-Loc bag. Read more on how to store chestnuts.
Aside from the nuts shriveling up like an old man’s balls, I encountered a scene straight out of a cheesy creature horror film. At the bottom of the glass jar were piles of these maggot-like things writhing about. I was terrified I had flies in my kitchen and they were breeding inside the chestnuts.
After fumigating the kitchen and Googling the nightmare I just witnessed, I realized one of the nuts I picked up was infested by a creature known as a “chestnut weevil.” There are apparently other kinds of “nut weevils” out there, but their modus operandi is the similar: Lay eggs inside the spiny maturing nuts, which hatch grubs that bore out of the nut and they grow into adult pests over the winter and spring, only to repeat the cycle.
The lesson I learned was to, again, not let the nuts sit for too long. Usually baking them in the oven will kill the bastards before they have a chance to hatch. This meant that the nuts I had gathered that year were no bueno, so I had to wait until the following year to attempt a chestnut harvest.
September 2018 comes. I store my chestnuts in the fridge and plan to cook them soon after harvest, whether it still feels like summer or not. I throw away any soft nuts or nuts with holes in them. Now, the only thing to do is learn how to roast them.
I had no aspirations to be an accidental arsonist, so I turned to Google once again to discover you can indeed roast them in the oven. I followed these instructions. It is very important to cut a deep “x” in the nut so the pressure does not cause it to explode while it roasts. Kind of like a baked potato, except chestnuts have a hard-ass outer shell that requires a sharp knife to score. I may or may not have sliced my finger open preparing these things…
I put the chestnuts in oven, keeping a diligent eye on them. The kitchen starts to smell AMAZING. I understand why there are songs written about this. Despite the hot temperatures outside, I am fully engrossed in my Christmas fantasy until…
I peer into the oven. One by one, nuts are exploding. Shotgun sounds permeate my kitchen. Nut-meat is blasted all over the place and crusting the inside of my oven. The sweet, homey aroma turns into the acrid smell of burnt popcorn. I turn off the oven and abort mission. I was only able to salvage a few, but damn were they tasty!! Cleaning the oven afterwards, was NOT fun.
This fall rolls around, and I learn my lesson once again. I cut deeper scores into the chestnuts (and into my fingers). I watch them like a hawk and pull any nuts out that looks like they will explode. I was able to enjoy many more chestnuts this year, and hope to be even better and more efficient at cooking and shelling them next year.
I’ve injured myself a lot for the sake of this treat. I’m not going to lie, Mother Nature makes me WORK for this! As painful as it’s been, there is something incredible about discovering a food source in the backyard that is not readily available in the mainstream grocery store. As more chestnut trees continue to re-populate here in the US, I wonder how many people have something growing in their yard and miss out because they weren’t just a little bit curious about…DEEZ NUTS!!!