Many nuts get plenty of fanfare, from the almond to the walnut to the peanut – which isn’t even a nut at all. However, without the familiar holiday tune ‘The Christmas Song,’ many folks may not even know about a relatively obscure nut that tends to only turn up around the holiday season.
When Nat King Cole sings ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire,’ he’s referring to the starchy, sweet and flavorful chestnut, which is an edible nut from a tree native to the northern hemisphere.
Chestnuts belong to the beech or Fagaceae family of trees, which are native to the mountainous forests of China, Japan, Europe, and North America. Chestnuts were once staples of North American diets because they could be found quite readily along the Eastern seaboard, where many early settlers first landed their ships. Chestnuts were once the most popular ingredient in 18th and 19th cuisine and became widely linked to Christmas dinner.
Early American chestnuts were small and flavorful and were abundant in late fall. Chestnuts once had a sweet flavor when eaten raw. However, they took on a nutty essence when roasted. Chestnut street vendors could be found sending off wafting aromas of inviting chestnuts from corner to corner. Unfortunately, a chestnut tree blight in the early 20th century decimated nearly all American Chestnut trees, leading to the demise of the domestic chestnut industry – and perhaps contributing to a declining interest in chestnuts with winter meals.
Today, most chestnuts are imported from Korea, China and Italy. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center reports that American chestnut production is less than one percent of total world production. The United States has 919 farms producing chestnuts on more than 3,700 acres. There may be hope for reviving interest in chestnuts as new research is trying to prevent the Asian blight that wiped out trees long ago.
Chestnuts traditionally pop up in stores during the holiday season. Unlike other nuts and seeds, they are relatively low in calories or fats, but are a rich source of minerals, vitamins and dietary fiber.