For nearly five decades worth of Christmases now, I’ve endured Nat King Cole crooning about “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.” But in all that time, I have never actually roasted a chestnut. In fact, I haven’t even seen anyone roasting chestnuts. That’s probably as much a function of the culture in which I was raised as it is my belief that roasting chestnuts was a trend of the past, a treat as modern as nuts in oranges in your Christmas sock.
But it turns out that roasted chestnuts are not the ancient relic that I thought perhaps they were. For instance, they are still a common “street food” in some parts of the world, including Turkey, where in Istanbul vendors hawk “Kestane kebab” from carts in both popular tourist districts and working class neighborhoods. I am told that warm chestnuts, roasted black, and served in a paper bag are also readily available from street vendors throughout London. My guess is that the same holds true for other majors cities throughout Europe and Asia Minor.
I’ve discovered that chestnuts were introduced into Europe by way of Sardis in present day Turkey. They were initially referred to as “Sardinian nuts” and for millennia, served as a staple food for the peoples who populated southern Europe, Turkey, and south-western Asia. In these regions of the world, chestnuts largely replaced cereals which could not grow well in the Mediterranean climate and soils. Until the introduction of the potato, the meat of the chestnut sustained whole communities who used it to make cake or bread.
Then, at some stage and for reasons unknown to me, the chestnut fell out of favor. It was maligned as “poor people food.” People abandoned “chestnut bread” because its flour did not rise. Chestnuts, it was said, gave a “sallow complexion.”
Despite all of this besmirching, and the embarrassment and shame that would invariably result from eating “poor people food,” we decided it was time to roast some chestnuts. Lacking an open flame, we didn’t so much “roast” them as we did “bake” them. Essentially, we cranked the oven up to about 400 degrees, scored the chestnuts, placed them on a baking sheet, and popped them in the oven until the shells split and were a deep mahogany color. Not exactly street authentic, but it was a worthy attempt and it worked well enough.
Out of the shell, roasted chestnuts were not at all what I expected. Being in the nut mindset, I was prepared for crunch. What I got was something that was nutty and slightly sweet, but with the consistency of a baked potato. Had we actually done some roasting, I suspect we would have added a little smoke flavor to the taste profile, but they were delicious nonetheless.
Beyond the taste and consistency, the thing that surprised me the most about roasted chestnuts was how filling they were. After having just a few, I felt as if I had eaten an entire meal. Maybe that ability to satisfy fully partially explains their previous popularity as “poor people food,” even though from a nutritional standpoint chestnuts have fewer calories per edible gram than many other nuts and dried fruits.
Given how filling (and, I presume, versatile) they are, I think I can understand why roasted chestnuts are popular “poor people food.” Although there is probably a good explanation, what I don’t grasp is how or why “poor people food” became and conintues to this day to be associated with Christmas holiday tradition in America. I’m sure by that statement that I’m advertising my historical and culinary ignorance, but so be it. For the moment, I’m satisfied to have simply experienced the gastonomical pleasure of the roasted Sardinian nut.