Okay, I realize that a lot of you are probably tired of reading about chestnuts in your favorite family newspaper, and who’d have thought that they’d make three weeks worth of column fodder? Still, here we are again, but I fully intend to let the subject rest for awhile after this current missive fires.
London, Kentucky novelist and good friend Tabatha Haddix was the only reader who chimed in with information stating that she had purchased some chestnuts during Thanksgiving at Kroger’s. More than half a dozen other readers have been asking where to find some, so now you know. I suspect, however, that they are long gone by now.
Tabs found out that hers had been imported from Italy. I have not, personally, seen any for sale locally in at least four decades. However, when I was growing up in Letcher County during the 1950s and ‘60s, chestnuts were popular holiday delicacies at practically every grocery store and fruit stand in the county.
I have no idea why, but we mistakenly called them “horse chestnuts” way back then. They were more than twice as large as the domestically grown Chinese chestnuts we grew up with and we knew they were not American chestnuts. If we asked salespeople where they came from, the most exact answer would be “somewhere off from here.” They also tasted, when boiled or baked, far, far sweeter and more appetizing than our local Chinese chestnuts. I suspect we called them horse chestnuts simply to distinguish them from other chestnuts, more than to suggest they had anything to do with horses.
In fact, I was soon to learn, real horse chestnuts are not chestnuts at all and not even close kin to them. They are closely related to and look much buckeyes. They are also poisonous if eaten. They are not native to North America but they seem to thrive as shade trees in our country. I’ve seen some more than 30 or 40 feet tall just outside Winchester.
And here I go digressing again. Anyway, one late November Sunday in 1968 or ‘69, I had stopped off at an Isom fruit stand after a weekend home from school on my way back to the dormitory at Pikeville College. I had planned to load up on apples, tangerines and mixed nuts to snack on in my room when I noticed that the vendor had some bushel baskets full of the largest chestnuts I’d ever seen.
The price was right, so I bagged up about a gallon of them in a brown paper poke and took them back to Pikeville. I ran into Tom Storrer, the college chef and Director of Food Services, before I’d even gotten to my room. The college cafeteria, at that point in time, occupied the ground floor of the men’s dormitory. I asked Mr. Storrer if he liked chestnuts and proceeded to show him my haul.
From the look on his face, you’d have thought that Tom Storrer was in a state of Divine Rapture. He explained to me that this particular chestnut only grew in certain parts of Portugal and France and that they were highly sought after by gourmet chefs. He peeled one open, took a bite and the Rapture returned to his countenance. I learned, the next day, that he had sent someone 60 miles to Isom and bought two bushels of the Portuguese chestnuts.
Mr. Storrer was the man who laughed and told me about how mistaken I was in regards to horse chestnuts. According to him, 99 percent of the chestnuts we bought then, and still try to find in this country today, are imported from Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, China or Japan. The European varieties are considered vastly superior to those of Asian origin.
That Thanksgiving, Mr. Storrer served up a holiday dinner for about a dozen students who were performing maintenance work over our Thanksgiving break.
To this day, his chestnut turkey dressing is one of the delicious dishes I’ve ever eaten, anywhere. I’ve tried to replicate it several times without even coming close. But, if I live another year, I’m going to be hounding Tabatha Haddix to keep a sharp eye out for chestnuts come November, and I’m going to try chestnut stuffing one more time.