Lessons from a Nut

Harvested chestnuts, awaiting processing. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Friday, September 9, 2016
Story and photos by Nancy Pierce

One October day several years ago, a woman I barely knew slipped me a single chestnut. “Plant it,” she whispered.

It was mysterious, but I couldn’t resist fondling the dark brown, smooth and shiny shell. In my pocket, it felt like the agates I hunted on the Lake Superior shore as child.

It rolled around my glove compartment until spring, when I stuck it in the dirt beside a dead potted plant in a forgotten corner of the yard. A couple of years later, when I found the 8-inch sapling, I didn’t even remember what it was. I dumped it into the wheelbarrow headed for the compost pile.

I ask myself now: What made me reconsider and stick it into the hard clay backyard? Did I somehow know it had lessons for me? 

By the time I figured out what it was, my Chinese chestnut tree was 20 feet high and almost as wide, fast-growing and graceful.

In mid-September of 2013, my now 40-foot tree produced its first big, thorny husks. It never occurred to me to harvest them. They scattered across the yard all winter until a neighbor child ran barefoot across our yard in the spring and howled in pain. After Googling “uses for chestnut husks” I raked them around the vegetable garden to deter rabbits and deer. How clever, I thought.

It wasn’t so clever.  The thing is, inevitably a chestnut weevil will find and lay eggs in one of the embryonic nuts. The resulting worms feed on the developing nut from inside, then chew escape holes in the shell, inside the husk. When the husk cracks and falls to the ground, the worms burrow into the ground for a couple of years before emerging as fully mature weevils ready to fly straight back up the tree and lay eggs.

The only insecticide-free way to control the worm infestation is to pick up the nuts as soon as they fall, before the worms can dig out.

But in fall of 2014 I didn’t know that yet. When the first few nuts fell in mid-September, I pried them from the thorny husks, roasted and ate them. I swooned – the chestnuts were dense and chewy with a rich and slightly sweet flavor, filling, and full of healthy fat and protein. They met all my criteria for comfort food. 

After that I was busy and ignored the hundreds of nuts covering the ground. In early October I gave a bag of late-season chestnuts to a friend for her birthday. “They’re great!” I told her. What I didn’t know then is that the first nuts to fall are the most worm-free. Mine had been 20 good to 1 wormy. Late-season nuts are the most infested. Turns out, a good friendship survives wormy gifts.

Wormy chestnut at left, a good one at right.

 Last fall my tree dropped hundreds of nuts per day in September. By then I had read about the life cycle of chestnut weevils.

So I had no choice. No matter how busy I was, or how wet it was outside, or how much I wanted to do something else, I could not avoid the task. Squat, (knees bent, straight back), pick, toss in wheelbarrow, repeat, repeat, repeat. I hate gym squats, but these felt good. I imagined myself years hence, aging at home, spending entire fall days slowly picking chestnuts. Turns out, it wasn’t a bad thought.

I got a bit obsessive. I figured each nut left on the ground equaled several future worms. Loading my car to leave for a morning meeting, I would detour to the tree and, feeling guilty for taking the time, quickly toss a few into the wheelbarrow. Somehow, doing that never caused me to be late.

On a rainy Sunday late last September I invited some friends to an impromptu chestnut harvest party, promising homemade chestnut lentil soup with cornbread and take-home chestnuts for everyone. The process is: 1) Remove the nuts from the thorny husks. 2) Drop them into water just below the boiling point to kill any worms and soften the shell. 3) Make a small slice in the shell. 4) Roast them until they break open. 5) Pry out the round, white nut. 5) Toss the wormy ones.

I had carefully laid out stations for each task, figuring we’d systematically rotate jobs. But we all ended up crowded around the dining room table, peeling chestnuts as they came out of the oven. Turns out, busy hands make conversation flow.

Chestnut soup

By mid-October our freezer was packed with a dozen gallon Ziploc bags of chestnuts and several containers of chestnut soup. It had been nice, but I was so done with spending an hour every day picking and processing chestnuts to beat the worms.

I work from home, spending hours at a computer. So I started picking and processing small batches several times throughout the day instead of doing them all at once. Picking relieved the stiffness from too much desk sitting.  The best part – peeling the roasted nuts – became my reward after a particularly noxious work task. And it turns out that after a 20-minute break outside prying nuts from husks, things shifted in my brain and I was more productive at my desk

In late October, the last nuts fell: They were gray, mushy and wormy, or else the nuts were unformed. My ratio of good to wormy was down to around 1 to 20. Then came the day when I knew it was time to just rake ’em up, fill the big black garbage bag and toss ’em in the roll-out.

But as I dumped them out of the wheelbarrow into the garbage bag, the pile looked so full of potential. I couldn’t bear to risk missing a well-formed, worm-free nut hidden in there. I knew the odds were almost nil, but I couldn’t stop myself. I dumped the chestnuts back into the wheelbarrow and picked through them. I had the wrong gloves on, too thin, but I couldn’t stop. I chose six.

I removed the thorny husks, dropped them in hot water and made the small cut in the shell.

I watched them through the toaster oven glass until they burst open, and I peeled them hot, ignoring the burns to my splintered fingers.

 All six were perfect.

Turns out, I had learned to pick ’em.

The American chestnut dominated eastern U.S. forests until a blight wiped them out early in the 20th century. Tree scientists are hybridizing American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts, hoping to restore the American chestnut forests. To learn more visit http://www.acf.org/