Chestnuts: Paying Homage To A Winter Classic

Commentator Bonny Wolf opines on a winter culinary classic: the American chestnut.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

'Tis the season for chestnuts - you know, the ones roasting on an open fire. Well, it turns out that a lot of them are from Europe or China. WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf recalls a time when they would have been from American trees.

BONNY WOLF, BYLINE: The American chestnut was king of the forest. One of every four hardwoods in the eastern woodlands was a chestnut. They grew so tall - up to 100 feet - they were called the redwoods of the east. Then a lethal fungus killed them all - four billion trees. A few stragglers made it through but the American chestnut was pretty much obliterated by the 1950s. Now, scientists are trying to stage a comeback. The American Chestnut Foundation has developed a seed called restoration chestnut 1.0. It's the result of six generations of breeding between the American native and a blight-resistant Chinese variety. Why is it so important to bring back the chestnut tree? Advocates say the trees were critical to the economy of rural communities and the ecology of the forests. Some even say chestnuts can help with global warming. They apparently have a good carbon footprint. A century ago, easterners could pull up a chestnut chair to a chestnut table under a roof of chestnut beams - all made from the light straight-grained rot-resistant wood. They might eat turkey stuffed with chestnuts, followed by chestnut pudding. Then maybe somebody would play a tune on a chestnut fiddle in front of a fire of chestnut wood. They probably lived on Chestnut Street.

This was some amazing tree. Animals like chestnuts as much as humans do. Before the blight, farmers let their hogs loose in September, when the chestnuts were thick in the forest. We're told hogs fattened on acorns in the mountains of Spain are something special. Apparently, you haven't tasted special until you've had meat from a chestnut-fattened hog. American chestnuts are smaller than the European or Chinese variety, but they're sweeter and more nutritious. They're so high in carbs but low in fat they're sometimes called bread of the mountains. Chestnuts make good soup, sauces and stuffings. They can be made into pasta and polenta. Chestnuts can be glazed, braised and sauteed. For dessert, chestnut ice cream, souffles or cakes. And, of course, chestnuts may be best roasted on an open fire.

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MARTIN: Bonny Wolf is managing editor of AmericanFoodRoots.com. This is NPR News.

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