Saturday, October 6th, I ate my very first chestnut.
It was a transformative experience which food often brings about, changing the world from ordinary, familiar and full of obligation into a place of adventure and celebration of the mundane moments dearest to our hearts. Eating a little piece of chocolate while doing the laundry, for instance, might not be a holiday event but it’s sure to make those fluffy, fragrant towels more enjoyable. So when it’s a dreary Saturday morning in the 50′s and quite chilly for an October farmer’s market in the Ozarks, the scent of roasting nuts overpowered me. As I was striding quickly towards the alpaca farmer to buy a warm woven headband to protect my ears from the wind, I noticed a vendor that I’d overlooked on all my previous trips to the market. He was the type of old which I find very appealing, the sort of elder full of wisdom to learn from. And the lesson he had for me was in a little chestnut.
I somewhat cautiously approached the stall, curious but not wanting to commit to a purchase of something unknown. There were bags of peanuts lined up on the table for sale, and a small Hmong child was returning for the 5th or so time that morning to buy more roasted chestnuts for their family. I held my breath, and observed the man scooping up ten hot chestnuts and filling a tiny bag with a fragrant goodness I’d never encountered. The child, whose head was just above the line of the silver roasting pans, peered over the lid, took the bag, and skipped off. I wondered aloud, “Are those real…chestnuts?” The vendor said yes, and I stood there in a stupor. The only knowledge I had of chestnuts came from the popular holiday song, The Christmas Song: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire by Nat King Cole and other artists. Having no idea how one roasted chestnuts, as a child I imagined that some people (living in an unknown place where holiday songs come from) simply sat around in their living rooms and tossed chestnuts into the flames. I wasn’t even quite sure they ate them afterwards, or how the nuts could be eaten. I certainly didn’t know that the chestnut was deeply connected to an environmental problem right here in the Ozarks which I might someday help alleviate. But that was to come later…
Soon I had a sample in my hand, warm, pungent, and round. It was like holding something alive and special, almost sacred. Here is this nut, that falls off a tree and gets roasted in its shell, and eaten! It’s unprocessed, like picking blueberries right off the bush. After carefully cracking open the shell, I took a small nibble of the warm nut inside. How could this be a nut? It was spiced and delicious, and reminded me more of a sweet potato than any tree nut. I quickly bought a bag for $1.00, and suddenly the dreary market was transformed into a place out of a children’s story.
I shared the chestnuts with everyone I met, including the alpaca farmer from England. She brightened at the sight of the chestnuts, gave a small squeal, and shaking her arm slightly with a grin from ear to ear, took a nut. “These are so nice, they can warm your hands, too!” she said, cracking open the shell. “I haven’t had roasted chestnuts in 20 years. Used to have them all the time in England, they sell them on the streets often.” Hearing her description of English pedestrians buying their roasted chestnuts from roadside vendors made a funny thing happen to our surroundings here in Arkansas. Perhaps it was the weather, since only in the last day or so had it gotten cold enough to bring people outdoors wrapped in winter wear. Or it could have simply been the joy of a tiny wax paper bag of chestnuts shared with others along with stories from the past. But whatever it was, the Arkansas market I go to every Saturday could have been in England, or in some village in Europe, or perhaps on the rainy west coast – or anywhere, in fact, where people eat chestnuts with gusto in gently falling, chilly rain. That woman in the autumn-colored scarf could really be walking down the streets of London. And the gentlemen in the Donegal tweed cap could be walking his dog in Ireland.
Chestnuts come from a tree locally known as the chinkapin or chinquapin, a tree that was wiped out in our region by logging and the chestnut blight. The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation is working hard to bring these trees back to their native range, and it would be an honor for us to be able to plant their seeds on our land someday. Then, we might offer wildlife a wonderful native food source, as well as enjoying their nuts for ourselves and roasting them over the fire. Here’s how to roast chestnuts in your oven: