The Prodigal Nut Returns

The Prodigal Nut Returns

Welcome back, chestnut!

By Nicholas Day

Jack Frost seems to be doing a little less nipping at your nose because of global warming. And chestnuts roasting on an open fire—well, the American kind is all but extinct, thanks to a fungal blight. But we soon may be eating those American chestnuts again, due to the work of plant pathologists, farmers, and other chestnut avengers.

American chestnut trees used to be over the entire eastern half of the country. In Appalachia in the 1800s, every fourth tree was a chestnut. Its wide-barreled trunk provided wood for house frames, cabinetry, utility poles—if something was wood, there was a fair chance it was chestnut. The nuts were milled into flour, ground into paste, or eaten raw or cooked.

But few people alive today have eaten an American chestnut. A fungal disease carried to the United States by an Asian chestnut variety sometime in the early 20th century wiped out almost all the trees. Chestnuts sold in stores today are mostly imported Asian and European varieties, which are larger and less sweet than the American chestnut. They’re also not as good: The best ones never make it to the U.S.

But we’re finally getting a taste of what a chestnut can be. Farmers having been planting Asian and European varieties over the last decade. And the American chestnut might finally be revived: Plant pathologists are developing blight-resistant replicas of the original tree. If all goes well, the chestnut, which vanished from the national diet when the American chestnut tree died, will be back on the table soon.

The New, Improved Superchestnut

A few weeks ago on a small farm in southwestern Virginia, Fred Hebard spent the day counting nuts. Hebard, who’s the lead pathologist for the American Chestnut Foundation, was tallying the embryonic chestnut trees that will soon repopulate U.S. forests.

Breeding chestnuts for blight resistance has been tried before: The Department of Agriculture gave it a shot a half century ago and wound up with a scraggly tree that looked nothing like the original. But in 1983, the American Chestnut Foundation was created in support of a breeding technique called backcrossing, in which an American chestnut is crossed with a Chinese chestnut, then the resulting tree is crossed again with an American chestnut. That’s done again, and again, until the only characteristic of the Chinese chestnut left is blight resistance.

To make sure of their immunity, every tree is directly infected with the blight. After a few decades of backcrossing and intercrossing, the foundation had a field of blight-resistant trees with fifteen-sixteenths American parentage. Theirs are the nuts that Hebard was counting; the foundation will release the first trees for planting in the wild this year, and, working with the Forest Service, it’ll plant more each year thereafter, many of them on strip-mined, denuded Appalachian land.

The prize: American chestnut trees should be dropping their own nuts by 2015.

A Hard Nut to Crack

Chestnuts are tricky. Because they’re high in moisture and low in fat, they’re extremely perishable. “Then, of course,” as Hebard says, “you have to peel the darn things.”

Lucienne Grunder, who has 80 acres of chestnut trees in California’s San Joaquin Valley, knows all about the difficulties. “I’ve sold them to restaurants, and I get a call in the middle of the night saying, ‘I’m still here peeling these chestnuts.’” Grunder, president of the Chestnut Growers of America last year, grew up eating the nuts in Switzerland; in the late 1980s, she planted some 10,000 European chestnut trees.

Rodger Bowser, the chef at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, uses Michigan chestnuts in a riff on marrons glacés—“I do it kind of a hillbilly style with maple syrup,” he says—as well as in a garlic chestnut soup with cream: “We sell the bejesus out of it.” But selling raw chestnuts, even no-work frozen and peeled chestnuts, is harder. “There’s a bit of a learning curve,” Bowser says.

Dennis Fulbright, a plant pathologist at Michigan State University, is a chestnut evangelist and plans chestnut-themed dinners with dishes like chestnut hummus (“Just take out the chickpeas and add chestnuts”). He doesn’t really care whether the nuts are European, Asian, or American. “When you go to the Rose Parade, you don’t ask what kind of rose this is,” he says rhetorically. “‘Is this a cultivated rose or a wild rose?’ ‘Is this an American chestnut or Chinese chestnut?’” He laughs. “Just shut up and eat it.”

Nicholas Day is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago, where he also eats.