The American chestnut, once king of the Eastern forest, was pretty much obliterated by a lethal fungus in the 1950s. A few stragglers made it through, but nearly 4 billion trees were killed.
This fall, I found two survivors on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I have expressed my appreciation by spending two weekends, tearing up my ungloved fingers on the chestnuts’ outer burr to release the shiny nuts within. I would probably make a fortune selling them but I am far too greedy. I want them all for myself (and a few loved ones.)
It’s not just that I love chestnuts, although I do. It’s that I, a city girl, found a near-extinct specimen of an important American icon and enabled it do it’s job — although they hadn’t been waiting for me. Woodland creatures had clearly been feasting before I showed up. I could imagine squirrels frolicking among the discarded burrs, lying on their backs, paws crossed, stomachs bulging. But they left plenty for me.
One of every four hardwoods in the eastern woodlands was a chestnut before the blight. They grew so tall – up to 100 feet – they were called the redwoods of the east.
Scientists are trying to stage a comeback. The American Chestnut Foundation has developed a seed that is the result of six generations of breeding between the American native and a blight-resistant Chinese variety.
They are bringing back the chestnut, advocates say, because the trees were critical to the economy of rural communities and the ecology of the forests. Some even say chestnuts can help with global warming.
A century ago, easterners who may have lived on Chestnut Street could pull up a chestnut chair to a chestnut table under a roof of chestnut beams – all made from the straight-grained, rot-resistant wood. They probably ate turkey stuffed with chestnuts on Thanksgiving. After dinner, somebody might play a tune on a chestnut fiddle in front of a fire of chestnut wood.
American chestnuts are smaller than the European or Chinese variety, but they’re sweeter and more nutritious. They’re so high in carbs and low in fat they’re sometimes called bread of the mountains. Chestnuts make good soup, sauces and stuffings. They can be made into pasta, polenta and pudding. Chestnuts can be glazed, braised and sauteed. And, of course, chestnuts may be roasted on an open fire.
So what will I do with all these chestnuts? Well, for five days I’ve been trying a few things. One night we had an all-chestnut dinner featuring an appetizer of roast chestnuts followed by chestnut soup and acorn squash stuffed with chestnuts, prunes and apples soaked in port. I made Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and sage ( which was overtaking the herb garden). I have plans for goose with chestnut stuffing, making chestnut flour, trying chestnut pudding. As soon as my hands heal.