The annual Great Chestnut Road Test

years and years ago, when blogging was ‘edge-y’,  I wrote this in one of my blogs.  A friend’s reminder of the smell of chestnuts roasting outdoors made me look around for this.   Merry Christmas to all …

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Roasted chestnuts were one of the culinary wedge-issues in my childhood.

And once a year I try to find a kind of epicurean accommodation.

In food, as in so many things, my parents were from different worlds. My father was raised in an ethnic New York neighborhood that would someday lead to stories about my grandmother teaching her seven children which streets were safe and which where places where no-matter-what-you-see-you-never-tell-anyone. It was a world of sweatshops and growing Communist sympathies. A world of daily market shopping with net bags and noisy, argumentative banter taking place across expanses of decidedly un-Heart-Healthy food.

My mother was raised in what nowadays we’d call Appalachian Ohio, one of eight children of a modestly successful Gentleman Farmer. Hers was a more boundaried world, sounding at times like a cross between Lake Wobegan and Walton’s Mountain. I remember her stories about Pinkie, the family pet lamb, eating the grapevine clinging to lattice outside their summer kitchen, stories about the short-legged Shetland pony — Trixie — who always tried to be as fast a runner as her mother. Mealtimes at the farm were as full of genteel manners as they were of Scots-Irish comfort food.

These were two people, it should come as no surprise, with very different ideas of good food.

It was the 1950’s — food selection and preparation were my mother’s dominion. Now and then, though, it seems my father yearned for something from his childhood. Somehow, he’d routinely manage to find a local farm stand or delicatessen on his way home and surprise my family with something totally unexpected: Basketsful of out-of-the-ordinary fresh and dried fruit, smoked oysters, dry-cured fish, and an un-ending range of vegetables packed in oil or aspic, with spices and herbs that had never been part of *our* kitchen.

Tolerant as she was, my mother could never hide her dislike for the smell of roasting chestnuts. And as my mother’s son, I somehow inherited the idea that the sweet, musky smell of chestnuts baking in the oven was something that should occur in the homes of other people. People we’d not have to visit too often.

A generation later I began to suspect that some of my father’s food tastes had merit. One by one, I’d end up trying some of the treats he’d brought into our world of shepherd’s pie, pot roasts and garden salads. And far more often than not, I’d have to admit I’d missed something by being reluctant to try those foods.

Five years ago I began a new family tradition —  the Annual Chestnut Road Test. Each January, around New Year’s, I lay in a supply of fresh chestnuts. The shells are dutifully scored with a penknife, and are placed into a hot oven for varying times. Results so far have been uneven.

While I can’t honestly say I *like* the flavor of these roasted nuts, the truth is, I’ve gotten to the point where I find the smell charmingly evocative of cozy afternoons in my parents’ New England house.

So, on this late Sunday night (just after midnight) two days before Christmas and more than a week ’til New Year’s Day, I’m sitting in the kitchen looking at a bag of chestnuts. *This years* Road Test batch.

Who knows, maybe this’ll be the year that I actually enjoy them.

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