A Brief History of Chestnuts and New Hope


Quaker Chestnut 

The indomitable chestnut.

A Glorious Staple Food

Chestnuts fall sometime between the last week of September and the first few weeks of October. They arrive during the heart of autumn in their sawtoothed green burrs to fill the season and, in many parts of the world, the year with a nourishing source of starch that is healthy for both our bodies and our land. Chestnuts have the capacity to be a staple crop, a foundational element of the American diet. They are much like corn in this way. However, there is a key difference between these two fundamental starches. Chestnuts grow on trees. While growing corn on a large scale means tilling and spraying toxic chemicals on the soil year after year, effectively eliminating any semblance of the microbial life that makes growing sustainable food possible, chestnuts are a no-till substitute that sequesters carbon and fixes topsoil. Sounds great, right? So, why don’t we see more chestnuts? Where did they all go? 

Put Down and Forgotten

The American Chestnut has been a steady food source to millions of people throughout history, a central element of the diets of nomads and settlers between present-day Maine down through present-day Mississippi for centuries. Its rot-resistant wood made top-quality lumber and its hearty nut was eaten raw, roasted, and as flour in hot-cakes and other baked goods. It is said that families would venture out into their local forests in autumn for the yearly chestnut harvest only to find mountains of fluorescent green burrs covering the ground. The nuts would be brought home by the bucketful, processed, dried, and usually ground into flour to provide a year-long staple for baking and cooking. The chestnut was one of the few crops that could be counted on year after year, a stalwart centerpiece of American cuisine. 

However, the course of American forests, food, and, indeed, history at large all changed very quickly when a strange disease was discovered on the chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo just after the turn of the century. This was the first evidence of a catastrophic disease that would alter the fate of the American food system. This chestnut blight was accidentally introduced to North America around 1904. Just months after its first recorded appearance in New York, it had spread in all compass directions. In the following years, the blight continued to raze a path of destruction up and down the coast, leaving behind carcasses covered in red fungal impressions that shattered bark and became haunting physical relics of loss on the landscape. Before the blight, the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was estimated at over three billion. After the disease spread as far north as Ontario in the 1920s, the American chestnut was effectively extinct. It is estimated that fewer than 100 of the 3 billion trees alive at the first recorded instance of Cryphonectria parasitica on the continent survived.

The Interstice

In 1945, Robert Wells and Mel Tormé penned The Christmas Song, a tune otherwise known by its most memorable lyrics, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." These words tap into an intense American nostalgia. Many of the day’s listeners could still remember a lost time from their youth when they couldn’t venture into a wooded area without tripping over chestnut burrs, when the American chestnut was one of the defining elements of their landscape, as plentiful as our modern-day oaks. 

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