When’s the last time you had a chestnut, or roasted one over an open fire? I grew up eating chestnuts at Christmastime. It was one of those foods that signaled the holidays for me, a staple at any gathering of friends and family this time of year. For many Americans, however, chestnuts are something of a novelty, and that’s in part because there haven’t been as many to go around.
The American chestnut once covered over 200 million acres of eastern woodlands from Maine to Florida, and from the Piedmont west to the Ohio Valley, according to The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). But in the first half of the 20th century, the American chestnut tree population was devastated by a fungus that hitchhiked its way to Long Island from China. A few decades later, by 1940, 3.5 billion trees had succumbed to what came to be known as “chestnut blight.” Foreign species of the chestnut tree, including Chinese and European varieties, are able to resist the blight.
The American chestnuts were “an essential component of the entire eastern U.S. ecosystem,” according to TACF. It was a reliable, productive tree that was a main source of food for a variety of wildlife from birds to bears. Since 1983, TACF has been working hard to breed a blight-resistant American species by backcrossing the American chestnut with the Chinese. It won’t be until 2015 to 2020 before they know if they’ve succeeded.
A bulk of the chestnuts sold in the U.S. today — about 4,000 metric tons of it — are imported from China, South Korea, Italy and Turkey. But more and more chestnut growers around the country are entering the market with their own hybrid and Asian varieties, promoting them as a wholesome food with a long legacy that dates back several thousand years.
The Chestnut Growers, Inc., a Michigan growers cooperative, says that chestnuts have half the calories of other nuts and the lowest fat content among all common edible nuts. They’re also loaded with complex carbohydrates. Dennis Fulbright, a plant pathologist at Michigan State University (MSU) who advises Chestnut Growers, Inc., told NPR that “people discovered that it’s probably one of the best foods on the planet — from the Roman legion to resistance fighters in Europe during WWII.”
Advances in harvesting (using Nut Wizards) and processing (with antimicrobial treatments) will also help to bring more of these sweet, starchy nuts to Americans’ plates. “And then there are new marketing strategies,” reports NPR. “Chestnut flour is aimed at the gluten free crowd, but there’s also chestnut honey and beer. MSU helped develop peeled-frozen chestnut packs, hoping to appeal to the shopper on the go.”
The chestnut growers of America would rather that we enjoy the harvest year-round. More of us might at least grab some for the holidays this year. Also, remember to score them before you roast them, or else they’ll explode.
Photo from Thinkstock