THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE
December 5, 2010
Christmas came early to Elmira, Oregon this year, in the form of a dozen or so mahogany chestnuts. I grew up singing about roasting chestnuts every holiday season, but had never tasted one until living in Italy with my then-boyfriend, Stefano. In Milan, his hometown, a crew of wizened men dot downtown streets, huddling over
coals, hawking newspaper cones of fire-roasted chestnuts. As romantic as it is to lean against the stone wall of a castle on a wintry day sharing warm chestnuts with your lover, we left that bit of romance in Italy when we came to America. Years have passed since either of us has even pondered eating one, so imagine our surprise and delight to find a pile of raw chestnuts in our driveway. Mind you,we’re more likely to celebrate Festivus than Christmas, but when the universe makes such a perfect gesture, The Christmas Song seeps into even the Scroogiest mind, and Jack Frost nips at heels. I’d also like to note that my husband and I don’t make a habit of eating food we find on the ground. Sure, in a lifetime of travels and some living on the edge, we’ve both ingested the occasional ground score, not really knowing if it was contaminated with botulism or drugs. But we’re forty-somethings now. We know better. This was okay because we found it in our driveway, our gated driveway. Chestnuts. We jokingly called it a Christmas miracle.
We’d had a dinner party the night before, and through the morning-after limoncello haze, Stefano pointed through the kitchen window, calling my attention to a patch of what resembled bulbous, brown mushrooms poking through our gravel drive, surely brought on by the recent rains. He went to investigate and soon burst through the front door looking like a kid who’d just met Santa. “Chestnuts!” Stefano called, cinnamon-brown bounty tumbling from his hands as he showed me his treasure. “They must have spilled from someone’s car last night—I’ll roast them tonight for dessert.”
I flicked one shiny nugget with the tip of my finger. “You’re sure they’re chestnuts?”
Stefano scoffed. “Of course I am,” he said, separating the nuts from the gravel he’d hauled in with them.
The man hasn’t lived in Italy for almost twenty years, yet he holds fast to his Mediterranean blood. Food is his specialty. Of course, he specializes more in the consumption of food than the preparation of it, but, dammit, he knows a chestnut when he sees one. The chestnut is a staple of Italy’s cuisine, and her people have long been nourished by the tree. From the fruit, Italians bake tortes, grind flour, cook jam, make candies, distill liqueur, and even mash polenta. No wonder they hold festivals in its honor.
Stefano washed and dried the chestnuts, carved a perfect slice in their bottoms, and set them aside while he rattled the cabinets searched for a roasting pan—something we didn’t own. Hubby concluded he’d have to make one, so I directed him to a stack of old frying pans we’d stored in our barn. Half an hour’s labor, a table-top drill press and my persistent Italian turned a well-used, thick-bottomed Revereware sauté pan into our new roasting pan.
We’d barely finished an early dinner of asparagus risotto when Stefano hightailed it onto the back deck, blasted the barbecue’s side burner on high, and began tossing the chestnuts around in the pan, flipping them over and over, shells clattering against metal, their burnt aroma tainting the autumn air. It took forever. Finally, we sat side by side at the dinner table, a kitchen towel spread between us, blowing on the steaming honey-colored meat that peeked from charred shells.
Stefano’s never been one to take his time eating. He’d peeled, chewed, and swallowed before I’d even scraped a bit of flesh onto an hors d’oeuvre fork. I knew something was wrong the moment the spec of nut meat hit my tongue.
“Hmmm…” Stefano murmured, scraping his tongue on his teeth repeatedly before sticking it as far out of his mouth as he could. “Thumpthing’s not right.”
To say the least, these chestnuts were not worthy of song. They tasted bitter and metallic. It took less than a minute for us to wonder if drilling holes through the pan’s Teflon coating had allowed its essence to bake into the nuts, two minutes for Stefano to discard the remaining chestnuts into the woodstove, and three minutes for us to start swigging port straight from the bottle in a mad attempt to wash the awful taste from our mouths. Within forty minutes, the gas started. Five hours later, Stefano rolled out of bed, nauseous and stomach churning. By six in the morning, he’d suffered through seven bouts of diarrhea.
To the untrained eye, Horse Chestnuts look much like the sweet chestnut—castagne, in Italian, also knows as marrons. But rather than some confectioner dipping them in glaces, mother nature has filled the horse chestnut with aesculin, a poison which breaks down blood proteins and inspired the common rat poison Warfarin. Though rarely fatal, chestnut poisoning can damage both liver and kidneys. It causes vomiting, loss of coordination, and stupor, occasionally paralysis or respiratory failure. In a nutshell, one should not eat gathered chestnuts unless they are from an identifiable tree. The horse chestnut, Esculus Hoppocastanum, has palmated leaves with five to seven finely-toothed leaflets; its bark is covered with markings that resemble a miniature horseshoe. The sweet chestnut, Castanea Vesca, has long, single leaves that alternate from side to side on the twig; its deeply furrowed bark resembles a hefty cable.
Needless to say, we felt pretty foolish the following day. When not sleeping off the toxins, Stefano moped from couch to toilet and back to couch, looking sheepish. I wasn’t sure if he was more upset from general malaise, his err in judgment, or because that mistake had forced him to exchange an entire day’s meals for a bowl of boiled rice. I spent the day quietly thankful. Considering Stefano suffered only severe diarrhea for consuming one whole nut and I but a bad case of flatulence for a mere taste, I’d say we were let off relatively easy—our true Christmas miracle.
Yes, point taken. Lessons learned. We won’t eat foreign objects found in our driveway. We’ll buy a proper roasting pan. And whether we celebrate Christmas or not, it always arrives on December 25th.
Old-Fashioned Fire-Roasted Chestnuts
First and foremost, purchase or gather your fresh chestnuts from a reputable source, a half dozen or so per person. Chestnuts spoil fast, so don’t purchase more than a week or two before using and store in a paper bag within your refrigerator’s vegetable compartment. Chestnuts should be firm, uniform in size, and have glossy shells. Discard nuts that rattle.
Rinse and dry the chestnuts, and then cut or an X into the flat side of the shell to prevent the nuts from “exploding” like popcorn. You can forgo the cut if you’re using a covered roaster such as a long-handled popcorn popper. Roast over a low fire for 15 to 25 minutes. Shake the pan often and watch for the shells to curl back if slit or pop open if not. A hot fire can cook the nuts in as little as 8 minutes. Don’t worry about charred shells, they’ll only add to the romance. To retain moisture, wrap the chestnuts in a towel as soon as you remove them from the fire. Peel as soon as they’re cool enough to handle and eat while hot—either plain, dipped in butter, or drizzled with olive oil.