by Guy Hand
When Nat King Cole crooned the lyrics “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” for his 1946 ballad “The Christmas Song,” he created a holiday classic just as a virulent blight was wiping out the last of America’s chestnut trees.
Three to 4 billion trees, mostly in Eastern hardwood forests, fell victim to the blight during the 1930s and 1940s, virtually scouring the species from its native habitat. That’s why the majority of Americans today experience the chestnut only vicariously, through Cole’s song or through a pale foreign substitute: leathery, over-the-hill chestnuts imported from China.
Thankfully, breeders have developed a blight-resistant chestnut tree—and that’s where this story gets its Idaho connection.
In the Dec. 14 BW, I visit a 500-tree chestnut orchard in Nampa, where Peggy and Jim Paul are helping to hasten the return of the chestnut tree to America. Along the way, I find out how chestnuts are grown and harvested, how local chefs use them in holiday dishes, and how to roast your own, Idaho-grown chestnuts over an open fire without having them blow up in your face.