I hope you all didn’t forget about me. I was lucky enough to be able to get away for the weekend with my girlfriend. The trip was much needed and helped me forget about turning twenty-five on Thursday. We collected chestnuts in my backyard and black walnuts in my front yard. Collecting the chestnuts has been a tradition in my family for a while now, so it felt amazing being able to pass that on to someone else. This post is about that process.
Two Chestnut Trees
Chestnuts taste better when you’re the one picking them from their spiny husks. It’s much easier to go to the supermarket and pick up a bag of them, but there’s no personal connection to the food. The supermarket isn’t getting them from outside New York City anymore. You’d be lucky to find even one cart in the city that still sells roasted chestnuts on the street; however, when you’re in the country and all you have to do is walk out your back door and beat the squirrels to the bounty, they’re much more enjoyable—especially when there’s a small bonfire going and you let the chestnuts roast over the hot coals.
Chestnut trees need to be near each other in order to pollinate. This is currently a problem because of two significant diseases: chestnut blight and Phytophthora root rot. When chestnut trees are close together, these two diseases spread and eventually kill their hosts. So they can’t be with each other and they can’t be without each other.
The two chestnut trees you see outside your window beat the odds. They were mature before the two diseases became a significant issue. They’ll drop chestnuts every year, but some years are much better than others.
This year was a good year. Many of the husks had up to three, nice-sized chestnuts in them. Some years, you’re lucky to get one. Using your shirt as a basket should be a requirement when gathering them, for nostalgia’s sake. Bags and bowls are for the weak. It should also be required to drop them at least once. If you aren’t burning more calories collecting them than you’re gaining from eating them, you’re doing it wrong. Scientists say children who participate in cooking and prepping dinner are less likely to be picky eaters and more willing to try new foods.
Chestnuts, however, are not new foods. You might not have tried them before, but they taste familiar. They’re sweet, but not like any other nut you’ve tried; they’re in a flavor-category of their own, but when you bite into them, they taste like something you’ve already had. You’ll never be wowed by chestnuts, but they’ll always be something you think you should crave; the aroma that comes out of the oven after twenty minutes of roasting makes the holidays feel a little more complete.
The beauty is in the process. In the summer, chestnut trees produce terrible-smelling flowers. The stronger the smell, the more flowers there are; the more flowers there are, the more likely you’ll have a good harvest; the better the harvest, the happier you are; the happier you are, the more you connect to the past; the stronger you see the past, the stronger the urge to break open their piping hot shells at the dinner table at your uncle’s house and take a bite.
Your uncle showed you how to collect them without stabbing your fingers. Chestnut husks are an effective deterrent for all kinds of animals. If you want to avoid their spines, you need boots and deer-skin gloves. Step on the husks to peel them back while you carefully grab the chestnuts. The spines are strong enough to go through the gloves if you go for them carelessly. When you’re good at it, you can help your uncle reach all the small spots between the bushes and porch where he can no longer navigate.
You have to be careful not to plant the trees too close to your house if you grow them yourself. Their terrible-smelling flowers will be what you think of when you think of summer, which isn’t the worst, and they will be all over your porch and roof, clogging your gutters every time the wind blows. The good news is that the empty husks, forgotten chestnuts, and decaying flowers will fertilize the ground and improve the surrounding soil.
If you’re really lucky, the forgotten chestnuts will grow into saplings that can be transplanted, or left to grow near their parents. If you keep the surrounding grass low and the soil drains well, the tradition of harvesting the chestnuts will continue for many generations.