GREEN THUMB – The beauty of Chestnuts

Nutritionist and author of "Food not Meds" Carol D'Anca of Highland Park in Ravello Italy buying chestnuts.
Nutritionist and author of “Food not Meds” Carol D’Anca of Highland Park in Ravello, Italy buying chestnuts cooked outdoors. – Carol D’Anca photo collection 2015

by Long Hwa-shu
I’m nutty about chestnuts.
When I was a child growing up in Nanjing, I would often buy a bag of roasted chestnuts and ate them with gusto when it was in season in fall. Vendors would roast chestnuts in a huge wok the size of a wading pool filled with little pebbles which I believe will help roast the nuts more evenly. Through constant use, the pebbles, with melted sugar added to them to sweeten the nuts, would become dark and shinning. The air would be filled with sweet, nutty smell which could only come from roasted chestnuts.
As a sign of their trade, chestnut vendors would decorate their stand with a small mirror above the wok draped with red cloth. Chestnut trees were grown in the countryside in Nanjing and elsewhere.
When I lived in Skokie, one day I found three chest trees for sale in a nursery in Morton Gove. They had to be Chinese-American hybrids because American chestnut trees had been wiped out years ago by disease. I bought one and planted in the side yard. For years it was just a stick with leaves sprouting out in spring. Slowly, it branched out and grew into a beautiful tree. It was not until 10 years later that it began to produce nuts. To my surprise, the nuts were big and of good quality. They got better and better each year. The problem was how to harvest them before the squirrels wipe them out.

Highland Park resident Carol D'Anca on a recent trip to Ravello, Italy as she purchases chestnuts.
Highland Park resident Carol D’Anca on a recent trip to Ravello, Italy as she purchases chestnuts.

The chestnuts are covered in thorny burrs. Squirrels would simply chew the stem of the burrs and carry them to their nest or hide them somewhere. I remember one late August morning I looked at the burrs before I went to work, promising myself that I would harvest them with a ladder and an extension saw when I came home. Too late! They were all gone when I got home. Every August hence I had to make sure I would be one step ahead of the squirrels. I remember it well one year I saw a squirrel stealing my nuts in the tree. I shook the branch so hard that the squirrel landed on my face, leaving a bloody scratch. Call it a case of adding injury to insult.
I loved the tree so much that when I moved to Wadsworth I wanted to have it transplanted to my backyard. I got some estimates to move it. I would cost $2,500 but there would be no guarantee that the tree would survive. I abandoned the idea and mail-ordered a chestnut tree from an out-of-town nursery because I couldn’t find one locally. It arrived so small and fragile and it died after one season. I bought another one which has survived but it’s only one foot tall.
The good thing is that I still own the property in Skokie and the chestnut tree is still there except I’m not there at the right time when the chestnuts are ready for picking. These days we just buy them at the grocery. They may be big but they taste bland. They are imported and sometimes have mold, so take a good look before buying.

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