In 1946, Nat King Cole recorded “The Christmas Song,”the most-performed holiday song of all time. Its opening lyric, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” evokes images of Christmas – a wistful version of Christmas most of us have never actually experienced, because a blight caused the American Chestnut tree, once the most predominant tree in the country, to go extinct.
Chestnuts were synonymous with Christmas in the United States even before the popular carol hit airwaves. In fact, they were one of the most popular ingredients in American dishes throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and for good reason: the Eastern seaboard was covered in Chestnut trees.
American Chestnut trees grew from Maine to Alabama, and as far west as Kentucky and Ohio. They were huge – more than 100 feet tall and more than ten feet wide – and there were nearly four billion of them. At one point, nearly half the trees in the forests on the East Coast were American Chestnuts. The nuts they produced in the late fall were small, about the size of an acorn, and sweet, with a flavor almost like a carrot when eaten raw. After roasting, the flavor got nuttier, and took on an almost candied sweetness.
In Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, train cars overflowing with hundreds of thousands of pounds of chestnuts supplied street vendors who sold bags of nuts roasted over charcoal on almost every corner. For more than a century, it was the smell of Christmas in America.
In 1904, a gardener noticed that a chestnut tree in the New York Zoological Park seemed to be suffering from a mysterious blight. The disease was ultimately traced back to a variety of Asian Chestnut that had been imported to Long Island, but by then it was too late: the blight spread, and within 40 years, nearly every American Chestnut was dead.
Other varieties of chestnut are still eaten all over the world, just as they have been for centuries.
“Chestnuts have been eaten by humans for a long time,” O’Connell says. “They are mentioned in the history of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans; they’ve always been popular in Italy and in France. In a historical sense, chestnuts were a food that was free to the poor as well as the rich – culinary traditions in all walks of life have involved chestnuts.”
It’s still possible to find chestnuts roasting on city street corners near Christmas, though vendors are fewer and farther between. The $20 million worth of nuts imported each year come mostly from China, Korea or Italy, and are a far cry from the sweet snack earlier Americans enjoyed.
“If you go to the store and buy roasted, peeled chestnuts, they’re not exactly delicious,” O’Connell says. “They’re bland, and a little like a soft potato. They’re not a crunchy food. They’re nice chopped up in cakes with sugar, or put into stuffing or used in a sauce. They’re nourishing; they’re just not that tasty.”
There’s hope for the American Chestnut, though. For decades, scientists have been working to breed genetically modified trees that will be resistant to the blight, but still produce the small, sweet nuts that were such a big part of this country’s early culinary tradition.
Plots of hybrid trees are growing in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. In another decade, you may be able to buy a bag of roasted chestnuts and not only be eating local; you’ll be experiencing an American holiday tradition the way it was meant to be enjoyed.