Bitter Chestnuts, or a Foraging Cautionary Tale
I used to live along Fort Greene Park, and every September, these delicious looking nuts would start to fall along the edge of the park. To my very untrained, but hungry, eye, they looked just like thechestnuts I’d eaten drunkenly in Vienna a lot, or drunkenly in Barcelona that one time, and so I was determined to roast a bunch and save a whole $5 by not having to buy them from the store.
So this past weekend, I boldly picked a couple bags full while the Fort Greene Park Greenmarket was in full swing. I made some new friends as we talked about how great it was to get some free chestnuts, and then I rushed home to roast my find.
Fast forward to our steaming oven full of roasted nuts. We bite in—and, uh, they’re horrible. So bitter you spit them out. Kinda gross looking inside. Soma even described them as “bitter gross poison mixed with poison.” What could have went wrong?
It was then I consulted Google, a little too late, to learn that what we had eaten were likely Chinese or Horse Chestnuts, and not our edible friends the American or European varieties.
As it turns out, American Chestnuts were almost completely wiped out by a blight in the first half of the 20th Century. No joke. Around 1900, the blight arrived in the U.S. accidentally, perhaps through lumber or an Asian Chestnut tree. In 40 years, it killed nearly 4 billion American Chestnut trees. The nut is supposed to be great, but you unfortunately won’t find any in the woods.
The chestnut you are eating these days is probably the European Chestnut, Castanea sativa. My book describes it as “very similar to American Chestnut,” so we’ll take their word for it. They look something like this:
the tasty European chestnut, which I most certainly did not pick in Fort Greene Park
I still need to revisit the park with my trusty Sibley Guide to Trees to figure out exactly what poison I fed myself (and I’ll update here!), but it’s always a good lesson to learn to be careful with eating stuff you find on the ground.