One of the more popular Christmas carols is “The Christmas Song,” sometimes called “Chestnuts Roasting”. The first line goes (sing it with me): “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”. It occurred to me that most folks sing it with only a vague idea of what it means, so allow me to illuminate.
Chestnuts are of course the fruit of the Chestnut tree, and there are several varieties worldwide. They have been a food source for centuries. Our native American Chestnut produced an excellent nut and our eastern forests were so prolific with them that it was said that a squirrel could jump from Chestnut tree to Chestnut tree from New York to Georgia without ever touching the ground. Native Americans used them extensively, and wildlife fed heavily on the nut crops, especially the now extinct Passenger Pigeon. The American chestnut fell prey to a foreign blight in the 1930s and was all but gone by the 1950s. A sad tale, for it was an awesome tree to behold and its wood qualities were superb.
It was popular both in the old world and new to serve hot chestnuts to family and friends during wintertime and Christmas. My mom told of placing chestnuts in the coals of a fireplace to roast and eat them. She and her sister would pick up sack-fulls of the nuts and sell them to the local grocer, who in turn sold them to a distributor who shipped them to the big cities. There they could be bought raw and cooked at home, or from street vendors selling hot roasted chestnuts. Eating roasted Chestnuts was such a time-honored tradition around the holidays that it is easy to see its use in a song that generates such lovely and nostalgic mental images.
Beyond our border, the chestnut is considered the most revered tree-food crop in the world, feeding both rich and poor throughout history. From prehistoric times to the present, people have always looked forward to the chestnut harvest, a simple task that involved merely gathering them as they fall to the ground.
Chinese chestnut trees are fairly common in our area, and if you can get your hands on some nuts you might try roasting some. Here is one method: Before roasting the chestnuts, make a cut in the round side of each to keep them from exploding. Make a chestnut-roasting pan by buying a cheap skillet and punching holes through it with a thick nail. Put the chestnuts in the pan, sprinkle them with water, cover them, and set the pan over a medium flame. Shake the pan frequently and continue roasting until the skins are blackened and have pulled back from the meat where you cut into them; this should take 5 to 10 minutes. If you want to go for roasting over an open fire, fix a long handle to the pan and hold it above a fireplace or wood stove flame, and remember to keep shaking. Enjoy the holidays and watch out for the Jack Frost nose-nipping thing.
Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tennessee.