Why don't we roast chestnuts for the holidays anymore?
In 1946, Nat King Cole recorded "The Christmas Song." Its opening lyric, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," evokes images of a Christmas most of us have never actually experienced, because a blight caused the American chestnut tree to go extinct.
American chestnut trees grew from Maine to Alabama, and as far west as Kentucky and Ohio. They were huge, and there were nearly four billion of them. At one point, nearly half the trees in the forests on the East Coast were American chestnuts.
The nuts they produced in the late fall were small, about the size of an acorn, and sweet, with a flavor almost like a carrot when eaten raw. After roasting, the flavor got nuttier, and took on an almost candied sweetness.
In 1904, a gardener noticed that a chestnut tree in the New York Zoological Park seemed to be suffering from a mysterious blight. The disease was traced to an imported variety of Asian chestnut, but it was too late. Within 40 years, nearly every American chestnut was dead.
Other varieties of chestnut are still eaten all over the world, just as they have been for centuries. It's still possible to find chestnuts roasting on city street corners near Christmas, though vendors are fewer and farther between.
The $20 million worth of nuts imported each year come mostly from China, Korea or Italy, and are a far cry from the sweet snack earlier Americans enjoyed.
There's hope for the American chestnut, though. For decades, scientists have been working to breed genetically modified trees that will be resistant to the blight, but still produce the small, sweet nuts that were such a big part of this country's early culinary tradition.