From The Farm: Reviving The American Chestnut

Oct 30, 2015

John Van Voorhees picks chestnuts off of the taller branches
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Even though I grew up in a mid-size town, on Sunday afternoons my family often drove into the surrounding countryside, where we would buy a gallon of cider from a fruit stand, and then troll the back roads for hickory nut trees. 


The chestnuts are inside these prickly husks
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

My parents could afford to buy walnuts at the grocery store, but my father loved hickory nuts and also wanted to pass on the tradition of going nutting. Yet for other farm families, nuts provided not only flavor in their baking, but also another source of income.

Years ago, I met an older woman who described how she and her brother would pick up black walnuts that their father would sell to buy them new shoes. Even today, sometimes I spy a sign stating, “Hulled black walnuts for sale."

Sadly, one nut tree that almost vanished from our country’s soil is the American chestnut. While the Appalachian Mountains region is more well-known for chestnuts, they also grew in the Midwest until a blight marched across America in the early 20th century, killing billions of trees.

Chestnut and Brussel Sprout Casserole:

2 cups steamed

brussel

sprouts

1 cup roasted and hulled chestnuts

1 onion

¼ cup butter

1/3 cup flour

2 cups milk or 1 cup milk and 1 cup chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a saucepan, add the onion and sauté until translucent, and then stir in the flour and the milk. When the white sauce is thick, add half of the cheese, plus the cooked sprouts and nuts. Pour into a two quart casserole, sprinkle over the remaining cheese, and bake until bubbling, about thirty minutes.

Shortly after coming to our farm, I spotted chestnut saplings growing in our woods, but when they reached about 20-feet tall, they succumbed to the blight. In the mid-1990’s, Michigan State University encouraged farmers to plant a new variety of chestnut that was resistant to the blight, and my husband, John and I began to notice small nut orchards dotting the landscape.

Currently, Michigan growers cultivate about a thousand acres of chestnut trees that yield an average of 100,000 pounds a year, making Michigan a leader in the chestnut industry.

Like other farmers, John and I planted a few chestnuts and watched them unfurl their shiny serrated leaves as the trees grew. A few years later, in June, long white catkins blossomed in the uppermost branches and bees buzzed around them. Throughout the summer and early autumn, the prickly burrs expanded until in October when they split their seams, releasing shiny, brown chestnuts.

Joan Donaldson and John Van Voorhees' chestnut tree
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

John and I watch for that moment and then race the squirrels to the bounty. We load a ladder and buckets into our pickup and drive to the trees. While John climbs the ladder and picks the high branches, I fill my bucket from the nuts that have fallen on the ground.

Chestnuts are high in protein and fiber yet low in oils. Because they’re mostly composed of water, they need to be refrigerated. Sometimes, we roast the nuts for snacks or sprinkle them in salads, but mostly they turn up in warm vegetable dishes. My family loves chestnut soup, and everyone enjoys my chestnut and brussel sprout casserole that I carry along to potlucks or Thanksgiving dinner.

Hot chestnuts are more than a symbol of the holiday season, but a reminder of how the American landscape provided a high protein staple for wildlife and the early settlers. And now, Michigan farmers supply chestnuts to enhance our fall cooking.