Chestnuts, Roasting on an Open Fire

Well, not exactly an open fire. Or roasting, really. Or chestnuts, to be completely truthful.

It all started on a quiet Saturday. Nobody was away on an overnight, nobody had friends over, nobody had meetings or other engagements out of the house.

Kathy and I opened the day in prayer, asking God specifically that He would help the day to be a fun relational day, and that the attitudes of the kids would reflect the fact that we like being together as a family. At breakfast, as I tickled and laughed with the children, David asked me, “Why are you being like this, Daddy? Usually you don’t act like this. I have been a bit preoccupied many recent Saturdays with work and other responsibilities. Time to have some silly family togetherness.

Around 2 pm, I inveigled everyone into a walk around the lake near our house; although it started to drizzle, we had a good time. As we left the park, I noticed two large chestnut trees, having recently dropped hundreds of their glossy mahogany-colored fruit and their prickly husks.

The First Lake Expedition
This crew, however, was not particularly prickly about being photographed.

Apparently none of us know the actual words to ‘Chestnuts, Roasting on an Open Fire’, but that didn’t stop us from bellowing out the few lines we did know, on the way home. Following my lead, the children have learned to compensate with volume for a lack of musical talent. Never having roasted chestnuts over any heat source, let alone an open fire, I decided to sponsor an expedition back to the park to harvest the chestnuts.

We gathered bags and bags of them, to the evident dismay of a rather scruffy-looking squirrel, which seemed intent on eating them all. We did him a favor — overdose by chestnuts is probably a painful way to pass from this world. Arriving home, I did a quick search for chestnut recipes online, and we began to prepare a batch of the nuts for roasting on a cookie tray.

Bags o' Nuts
Don’t they just look too good to eat! Our mouths were watering …

Kathy was on the phone with her mom, who was very impressed with our foray into the world of Christmas lore. Unfortunately, she had never actually tasted roast chestnuts, and was not a good source of information on the topic.

I immediately thought of my Mom, who grew up at least part of the time on a farm. She used to tell us stories about the many old-fashioned Christmas traditions they enjoyed. I figured her generation probably had more in common with Little House on the Prairie than the hustle and bustle of this modern age. “After all,” I figured, “she’s old — she probably knows about this stuff.” We got her on the phone.

“Nope,” she answered. “I’ve never even tasted them.” I guess all that old-time Christmas nostalgia is a crock. She compounded my disappointment by mocking me: “Also, watch out for those poison chestnuts. They’re just like mushrooms, you know.”

I rolled my eyes, which had little effect, over the phone. “We saw a squirrel eating them, Mom. Shows what you know.”

Prickly Girl
For some reason, we all wanted to show Kathy (who didn’t go nut-gathering) the prickly husks.

Mom was quick with an answer to that. “Ah, but as everyone knows, squirrels can tolerate a much higher level of toxicity than humans.” She’s a hoot, my Mom is. I laughed patronizingly and hung up, threatening her with some of our culinary efforts when she next visits.

Except that this time, she was right.

Prodded by a feeling of unease (that I have come to recognize is from the Holy Spirit), I did a little more research online. As it turns out, Sweet American chestnuts were nearly obliterated in the United States by the dreaded Chestnut Blight, so that most American chestnut trees were wiped out by 1940. Apparently the blight continues, and so even chestnut trees that have grown up since 1940 are often killed by the blight fungus before they reach maturity. Chestnuts eaten today in this country are almost entirely imported. The chestnuts we harvested so gleefully are from an unrelated horse-chestnut tree, toxic to humans (but not, strangely enough, to deer or squirrels).

Don't put those in your mouths, kids!
Fortunately, most of us, no longer toddlers, are past the ‘put everything in your mouth’ stage.

I’m told that the horse-chestnuts have a very bitter taste, which may have limited the number we would have eaten, but I felt we had a narrow escape. As I read on one website: “Chestnut poisoning is rarely fatal, but typically causes vomiting, loss of coordination, stupor, and occasionally, paralysis.”

As I read on another website:

Horse chestnut trees do not produce the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” that Nat King Cole croons about every Christmas. The edible chestnut grows on the European sweet, or Spanish, chestnut. The ones we buy for the holidays are most likely imported from Italy.

Horse chestnuts contain a bitter poison called aesculin. Even though we see squirrels going after them, horse chestnuts are toxic for humans.

I’m thinking of a new Christmas Carol, adapted for modern times:

Aesculus, baking on an aluminum cookie sheet,
Drizzly mist, falling on your ears
Yuletide carols, being sung out of tune
and folks without raincoats, standing in the rain.

Everybody knows, some stomach ache and stupor
help to make the season memorable
tiny tots, with vomiting and paralysis
will find it hard to sleep tonight.

… but I don’t want to give away the whole song. I contacted Freddy Cole (Nat’s younger brother) about singing it for me; so far, he hasn’t returned my call.

Project 365, Day 279

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14 thoughts on “Chestnuts, Roasting on an Open Fire”

  1. Oh NO!!!!! You poor things.

    We call the horse chestnut seeds – CONKERS! And it’s traditional to pierce a hole right through them, thread some string through, make a knot in one end and have CONKER FIGHTS! you bash your opponent’s conker by swinging your own at it trying to smash it. A much loved autumn playground activity in Britain. (Mind your eyes, if you try that.)

    Sweet chestnuts are an entirely different matter and much more fiddly (and painful) to collect and de-husk, but very delicious.

    Love the song.

    Poor squirrels.

  2. Glad you followed that uneasy prompting, eh?! Now don’t you have to call Mom back and tell her she was right? Humble pie can sometimes be pretty tasty, I’m told. Thanks for sharing the education. What do you do now with all those gorgeous chestnuts?

  3. Our family collected a big pile of buckeyes, they resemble the chestnut and are also poisonous. We dried them in the garage for a month of so, drilled holes through them with our smallest drill bit, then hung them on the Christmas tree. Some were individually strung on small pieces of wire with glittery beads as little ornaments. For a delicious treat, try this:

    Squish together in a bowl:
    1 1/2 cups peanut butter
    1/2 cup butter
    1 lb. powdered sugar
    1 tsp. vanilla
    Roll them into little chestnut sized balls (or buckeye)
    The warmth from your hands will help mold them together.
    Dip them into melted chocolate – not the whole thing! Make sure you leave the little light brown center so it looks like a chestnut (or buckeye).

  4. What a fun “educational day! Thanks so much for the history lesson of the chestnut! I had no idea! :-) I will always think of the Tim, Kathy and the kids everytime I sing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” :-)

  5. I saw the pictures and was hoping the rest of the story wasn’t about how you all got sick. I only know about these because our dd’s flute teacher has a tree in her yard and warned us EVERYTIME we went not to let the boys pick any up and that they were poisonous!

  6. My parents are moving from their home of 35 years this year to downsize and I’ve been trying to grow a chestnut tree in my own yard from their tree of 35 years. It’s something I want to keep as the nuts and the tree and the memories are always important. Nice post.

    Buffalo GameBuffs blog

  7. I knew something wasn’t right when I saw your pictures of the hulls. My grandparents and my mother all have a chestnut tree in their yard. The good sweet American chestnut that is not poisonous. Those hull, which I am very well aquainted seeing that I helped to clean them off the ground for many years, are 1)brown and 2) very prickly. A lot like a baby porcupine.

    My mom is kind enough to pick some off the ground for me each year and I get to eat roasted chestnut. Er, I should say microwaved chestnuts.

    If you manage to find the edible kind of chestnut I’d be happy to give you roasting or microwaving instructions.

  8. I’ve never seen a “wild” chestnut, horse or otherwise. I guess they don’t grow down here in the south. I’m glad you discovered about their untoward gastric effects before you roasted them!

    We did buy some chestnuts when living in New Jersey and we roasted them. We obviously did something wrong, because they were awful.

  9. I saw the picture and thought, oh no, that’s not the type you eat! Glad you found out before roasting them. They are fun to play with and pleasing to look at in a fall display or centerpice anyway. I was going to suggest conkers too but see Dorothy has already informed you of that interesting game!

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