HOPKINS — When chestnut blight landed on American soil in the 1900s, it didn’t just wipe out the East Coast’s dominant tree, forcing carpenters to find new woods for the floors, posts and poles that had held up society since the nation’s founding. It ravaged a way of eating.
David Shields provided the following selection of pre-blight recipes from American newspapers and cookbooks.
Mary J. Lincoln, Philadelphia Inquirer
Cut a slit in the shell of each chestnut, put them in a popcorn popper over an open fire and shake them frequently. When they burst open, they are done. Remove the shells and skin and then toss them about in hot water in the chafing dish. Sprinkle with salt and paprika, and add sufficient Worcestershire sauce to moisten them. Stir them till all have received a portion of the pungent dressing, and serve them hot.
December 30, 1899
Chestnut Sauce For Turkey
‘How to Use Chestnuts in Cookery,’ Evening Star
Remove the shells from four dozen large chestnuts and put them in a roaster, an iron pan with holes, place them over a clear, bright fire and stir and shake them about constantly until the skins can be removed easily. Then put them into a saucepan with a gill of white wine or good sharp cider and enough clear stock to cover well. Add an ounce of butter, a large teaspoonful of sugar and a grating of nutmeg. Boil until quite tender, keeping them whole. Remove the chestnuts to a hot, covered sauce dish, reduce the liquor by boiling it down a few minutes longer, then pour over the chestnuts and serve with turkey.
November 7, 1903
‘Chestnuts for Thanksgiving,’ Seattle Daily Times
Remove the outside shell from a pint of chestnuts and let them stand in boiling water until the inner skin will peel off. Then cover them with water, to which a pinch of salt has been added, and boil until quite tender, with a leek and a sprig of parsley. A slice of bacon may be added if desired. Press through a colander, add a lump of butter, a dash of black pepper, a quart of milk and spoonful of finely minced parsley, and let all come to a boiling point.
November 23, 1901
Mrs. J. Chadwick, Home Cookery
Boil and peel a dozen and a half of chestnuts. Beat them in a marble mortar with orange-flower or rose water, or sack, till they are a fine paste. Beat 12 eggs and mix with the chestnuts, grate a nutmeg, add a little salt. Mix this with three pints of cream, and half a pound of melted butter. Sweeten to taste, and mix all together. Put a puff paste around your dish and pour in the mixture. If you have no cream, use three pints of milk, beat up the yolks of four eggs and stir into the milk, set it over the fire, stirring all the time until scalding hot; then mix in the room of cream.
‘Household Recipes,’ Biloxi Herald, 3
Shell and blanch 34 chestnuts, and boil until tender. Drain off the water and pound 10 to a paste, add one cracker rolled fine, quarter-pound chopped raw meat, one teaspoonful chopped parsley, one teaspoonful salt, one teaspoonful of pepper, on teaspoonful thyme and two tablespoonfuls butter and 24 whole chestnuts. Mix well.
December 14, 1889
‘Seasonable Nut Recipes,’ Baltimore American, 30
This salad may be made from our own nuts as well as from the large French chestnuts. Boil in salted water until tender. Remove the shells and skin, and while still warm cover with French dressing. Serve cold on lettuce leaves or garnished with celery tips. Another salad is made by boiling and shelling the chestnuts as above directed, chopping them quite fine, mixing them with chopped capers and serving with mayonnaise dressing. This is delicious with game.
November 12, 1905
Before the arrival of the blight-causing fungus, which reduced 10-story trees to stumps, Americans consumed chestnuts by the train-car-load during the holidays. When food historian David Shields went hunting for chestnut-era recipes, he ambled into a 19th-century world where eaters dined on “chestnut souffles, chestnut grits, chestnut-fed venison and, at Christmastime, chestnut pudding flavored with rosewater.”
“One of the sad things is chestnut dressing for the turkey and chestnuts roasting on an open fire are all that have survived,” Shields says of the period’s ghosts.
Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina, last year began collaborating with grain revivalist Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in Columbia to explore the possibilities of restoring the American chestnut to its rightful place in the American diet.
After meeting with a chestnut grower, they became reforestation evangelists, spinning extravagant ideas involving the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and farmed chestnut-fed venison.
“They would get their traditional foodscape back,” Shields enthuses, allowing that the revenue-generating plan is “in nascent stages.”
Yet all of their excitement was precariously perched on the untested theory that animals that feast on American chestnuts are especially delicious. From a flavor standpoint, they didn’t have an empirical clue whether their chestnut dreams were worth chasing.
Their first chance to evaluate the quality of chestnut-rich cookery came earlier this month, when Roberts secured a pair of pigs captured in a chestnut grove. One of the pigs was delivered to chef Craig Deihl at Cypress in Charleston so he could produce an edible index of chestnut-fed charcuterie. The other pig was overseen by Shields, who made it the centerpiece of a Midlands barbecue at which guests were promised “something that probably hasn’t been tasted in the South since the 1910s.”
Chestnuts never completely vanished from the U.S. landscape. Although the blight that was first observed at the Bronx Zoo eventually killed four billion trees, a few small stands survive beyond the tree’s native range. Within the native range, stretching from Mississippi to Maine, there are millions of chestnut sprouts. But the puny sprouts typically wither before they flower, making the beech tree functionally extinct. When homeowners talk about the chestnut trees in their backyards, they’re typically referring to blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts.
Since the blight’s onset, scientists have been fiddling with tree genetics in hopes of breeding away the American chestnut’s susceptibility to disease. The American Chestnut Foundation this year celebrated three decades of working to invigorate a healthy tree population, a process that culminated in 2005 with the introduction of a promising hybrid. The Asheville, N.C.-based group is now planting trees across the East, assisted by 6,000 volunteers and Dolly Parton, who recently recorded a song about the mighty chestnut.
But the foundation is interested in numbers, not nut quality. Michael Peterson of Eastover Nut Farm in Richland County grows Dunstan chestnuts, because they’re easy to peel and taste sweeter than European imports, without the tannic tang that chestnut detractors cite.
There were a pair of Chinese chestnut trees standing on the property Peterson bought in 2005 so he could raise tomatoes in retirement. “The people who would pick them would be Koreans, Chinese, people with chestnut cultures,” Peterson recalls. When a local tomato glut sunk Peterson’s first farming foray, he planted 100 Dunstan trees.
“They were the size of my finger,” Peterson says.
Dunstans don’t interest chestnut growers who want their trees to achieve historic heights: They tend to max out at 60 feet. But the hybrid developed in the 1950s by Robert Dunstan, a North Carolina romance languages professor who sold animal hides to pay his Duke tuition bill, got a tryout in northern Florida. Groves planted there in the 1960s are thriving.
Still, those trees don’t produce nearly enough nuts to compensate for the generations that have passed since chestnuts were considered an everyday ingredient. Peterson says American cooks have lost their facility with the chestnut.
“This thing about roasted chestnuts that everybody sings; nobody knows how to roast a chestnut,” Peterson says. “Nobody knows how to boil a chestnut. Nobody thinks about chestnut puree, nobody thinks about making chestnut paste.”
Peterson is on the cusp of having enough chestnuts to take to market. In the meantime, he’s using his yield for demonstrations, reasoning that he’ll stand a better chance of selling his crop if he can rekindle eaters’ familiarity with it.
“It’s an education thing,” Peterson says. “If people could just learn to boil instead of roast chestnuts, people’s enjoyment of chestnuts would be a lot better.”
The few dozen guests gathered at Oldfield Plantation in Hopkins for Shields’ barbecue didn’t need much prodding to enjoy chestnuts. While waiting for hunting buddies James Helms, Chuck Ross and Lee Kershner to finish picking the pig they’d spent about 12 hours slow cooking over a mix of oak and chestnut wood, guests crowded around a bowlful of Peterson’s chestnuts, memorizing the nuts’ floral notes so they could later gauge whether the pork sounded them.
Rounding out the picnic were the expected beans, slaw and hash, and a selection of snacks pried from the yellowed-pages of forgotten cookbooks and participants’ imaginations. The table was set with competing Bradford watermelon pickles, Charlestonian Chad Carter’s sorghum caramels and skillet chestnut bread, prepared by Columbia chef Mike Davis from buttermilk, eggs, lard and chestnut flour.
“David called me and said ‘Would you be interested in eating a chestnut-fed hog?’ ” Davis said of his involvement in the event. “I said ‘golden.’ ”
A Florida chestnut farmer found the feral razorbacks nibbling on chestnuts in an untended widow grove of mid-century hybrid trees. He surreptitiously built a pen around them, so the dark brown pig and dark black pig could spend the rest of their lives eating chestnuts. After he captured them, he finished them on conventional and organic Dunstan chestnuts: Kershner described the pig he smoked as “well-kept and well-fed.”
Just as duck hunters curious about the taste of ducks that supped on bygone rices pushed for the resurrection of heirloom strains, Shields said deer hunters such as Kershner, who’ve read accounts of chestnut-fed venison, are among the most fervent supporters of chestnut restoration.
Kershner wasn’t sure he could detect any chestnut character in the meat, but he was tremendously impressed by its flavor.
“I’m normally a sauce guy, but you don’t need any sauce with this pig,” he said. “It definitely tastes better than any other pig I’ve had.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
Charleston’s Chad Carter, formerly of McCrady’s, shows off his plate of chestnut barbecue, chestnut bread and traditional fixings.×
Chuck Ross (right) and Lee Kershner (second from right) slow-cooked the pig for 12 hours.×
The pitmasters claimed the meat didn’t need sauce, but the Midlands crowd couldn’t resist the mustard-based option offered.×
Chuck Ross prepared hash for the occasion.×
Chestnuts could make a comeback if revivalists get their way.×