Thursday, October 11, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 9: The Chestnut

Chestnuts are a very old and important Native American food source in what is now the eastern United States.  Not only were they eaten as nuts after roasting, like they are in Europe.  The were also an important source of nut meal and nut milks, an important cooking pot base for a lot of one-pot dishes of the Woodlands.  They were also used as stuffings for large and small games birds, along with dried fruits.  They were also used as a vegetable, being eaten just like we eat mashed potatoes today.  In maple sugaring areas, the ground meal could be used to make a travelling food; what we would call candy today. And, along with berries like cranberries, that were rolled whole in hot maple to sugar coat them.

The original native range of Native American Chestnut varieties.

Two principle types of Native American chestnuts were wide spread in the eastern woodland away from coastal plains.  They include Castanea dentata or the American Chestnut and Castanea pumila or the Allegheny Chinquapin it's proper Powhatan Algonquin name or the Dwarf Chestnut.  In addition to these at least 4 other native species were known, mostly in the what is now the southeastern US.  They prefer higher altitude and were an important source of food for pioneers as much as they were for the natives that lived in those areas first.  It was particularly important food in the Appalachians, were it was often added to skillet dishes of meat or sausages, to stretch the protein source.  According to Wikipedia in some parts of the Appalachian mountains a full one quarter of all hardwoods were chestnuts.  The wood was beautiful, useful and valuable, despite the abundance of trees.

Green fruits of the American Chestnut.  The above photo shows the mature nuts of the same tree.

That Chestnuts have long been comfort foods in both Europe and the New World is well known, however there is also an Asiatic chestnut as well.  And there in lies the biggest problem with the Native American chestnuts.  Europeans brought the European chestnut species--the Sweet Chestnut--with them and they posed no threat to the native varieties.  However, the Asiatic chestnut species' introduction was!  In 1904 some type of Asiatic chestnut trees (there at least 5 of them, mostly from China) that were planted on Long Island carried a fungal blight to which those trees were immune; the Native chestnuts were not!  In a sad, strange way, this mirrors some of the plights of the native peoples themselves; being exposed to new diseases to which there was no natural immunity.

This is the Sweet Chestnut from Europe

The coming of the chestnut blight all but wiped out in the wild.  In just a couple of decades some 3 Billion chestnuts trees!!!  Some species of the southern range don't grow in the wild anymore than anyone knows for certain--though these trees had less importance to humans, they were important to native animals of the area.  Bear to deer relied on wild chestnuts of all sorts, their disappearance in the 20th century, hastened the decline of the these wild animals greatly, as their habitat also shrunk.  The blight was first noticed on American Chestnuts growing in what is now the Bronx Zoo.  So called "panic logging" after the blight started to seriously spread probably killed off trees that had a resistance, thus giving them no time to reproduce.  To this day, most wild American Chestnuts grow west of the Mississippi, with a few exception.  Information about wild locations can be found here.  

In addition to the ways mentioned above that people used chestnuts, they were also made into cakes, which could be dried for future use in soup and stews, or eaten as is.  They were added to vegetable dishes; and because they have to be roasted or boiled to peel, they lend themselves to vegetables well; they have a very "vegetable like quality."  Ground up they went into dessert, like pies.  In France, the Sweet Chestnut is candied.  In modern times, they can be frozen in the husk, as long as you don't want to use them as freshly roasted.  I very popular way of preparing them in pre-contact times, the ground meal was mixed with cornmeal, wrapped tightly in corn husks or other leaves, like large oak, and boiled.  This remained a very popular way of preparing chestnuts among the Tsalagi (Cherokee) and is called Di-S-Qua-Ni, in this dish the chestnut tend to be chopped up, instead of ground.

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