Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
We've all heard the classic Nat King Cole recording of "The Christmas Song" and heard about "chestnuts roasting on an open fire". How many of us have actually ever had roasted chestnuts? In all of my years, I never have...until last weekend.
Growing up we had a chestnut tree across the alley from our home. I remember one Christmas asking my mother about roasting chestnuts from that tree. She told me those things were poisonous. Trusting her word, I never really thought about it any further until recently.
Every time I heard "The Christmas Song", I'd think about those "roasting chestnuts". If they were truly toxic, why did they ever sing about doing something that could kill you?
I decided to look into this situation and figure out what it was all about...
Chestnuts at one point were one of the most popular ingredients in American dishes in the 18th and 19th centuries. The eastern part of the United States had an abundance of chestnut trees. The American chestnut tree grew from as far north as Maine and south to Alabama. They could be found from the Atlantic shore as far west as Kentucky and Ohio. Some of the trees were more than 100 feet tall. One story said that at one point, nearly half the trees in the forests on the East Coast were American chestnuts.
Street vendors sold bags of roasted chestnuts on street corners. It became the smell of Christmas in America.
Then, in the early 1900s, the trees suffered from a mysterious blight. The disease was ultimately traced back to a variety of Asian chestnut that had been imported to Long Island. The blight spread, and within 40 years, nearly every American chestnut was dead.
That's why most of us have never experienced the tradition of "roasting chestnuts on an open fire".
Fortunately, you can find chestnuts again. Many are imported, but there are also some that are grown in the U.S. and even locally.
If you want to try roasting chestnuts, it is actually pretty easy to do. I found chestnuts at my local Meijer. They are sold in a bag which I found stocked near the carrots, lettuce and celery in the store.
To prepare the chestnuts some people will soak them in water for a period of time. This is not required. I did not soak my chestnuts.
Before beginning to roast the chestnuts, you need to cut an "X" through the husk on the on the flat side of the chestnut. This will allow the steam from inside the nut to escape. Without cutting the outside of the chestnuts, they could explode.
I used a small cast iron skillet to do my roasting. I placed it on the hot coals of a campfire I had burning in my fire ring in my backyard. (Check with your local government to see if campfires are permitted where you live.)
I let the chestnuts (which aren't really nuts, but seeds) roast for about 20 minutes. They could have probably gone a little longer.
They are actually pretty tasty. I ate them plain, but have seen recipes that suggested dipping them in melted butter or sour cream
This could become a yearly tradition for me! Give it a try!
And just so you know, yes...Jack Frost was "nipping at my nose" while standing out in the cold, roasting the chestnuts!
Here is a video on just how you can roast your own chestnuts...