Friday, November 8, 2013
Scary Recipes III: The Big Chestnut Lie
Anyone who grew up reading English Children’s literature might be forgiven for holding the chestnut in high culinary esteem, even though said child might never have actually eaten a chestnut. They are spoken of with reverence; they are part of the cuisine of Little Women, Mrs. Appleyard, and ancien regime France. There are recipes in Escoffier. They are in Dickens. They are the European nut of fairy tales. Imagine Mont Blanc puddings, and the elegant marron glaces. M.F.K. Fisher ate them . French courtesans ate them. They have gravitas, culinarily speaking.
Imagine a newish bride. This literary bride likes to cook fun stuff for her husband, who is equally glad to eat her experiments. She grew up reading all about the romantic chestnuts while living in the sunny beach towns of Southern California. There are no chestnuts in Southern California. California is the land of almonds, walnuts, and pistachios (all of which are delicious in stuffings). Chestnuts are Romantic! This new bride finds a jar of shelled chestnuts at Wiliams-Sonoma. Imagine her innocent excitement. Notwithstanding the fact that they look like little dried shriveled brains, she buys them and decides that she will make Turkey with Chestnut Dressing. Just like Dickens! It’s Historical! Everyone will LOVE it!
There are times, Patrick O’Brian once wrote, that hopes are raised only to be dashed.The dressing is made, the turkey is roasted. The table is set, the eaters are ready to plunge into their fancy gourmet dressing. One after another, after a few bites, they politely start picking around the lumps of chestnut to eat the otherwise delicious dressing. Chestnuts, it turns out, are evil. They have an unfortunate texture and an unappealing flavor. They taste like earthy moldy soggy lumps of yuckiness. It is decided by all that Europeans used to eat them because they had no other alternatives, (like pecans, for example.) They must have been desperate! They had no other choices! Ever afterward, the chestnut debacle (they were both expensive and disgusting) is referred to in hushed tones whenever one of us wants to try something iffy - remember how those chestnuts turned out, we warn. It’s been thirty years and all of us who were at that dinner are still in agreement: the chestnut will never darken our kitchen door again.