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That Old Chestnut

December 17, 1995|RUSS PARSONS

Although in other chestnut-rich regions of the world you can find recipe after recipe using the nuts or their byproducts (chestnut flour, chestnut puree . . . ), the American selection is relatively poor.

In the 1896 edition of Fannie Farmer's "The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook," you'll find the basic American chestnut repertoire: candies, puree, croquettes, stuffing, gravy, souffle and deviled (fried with Tabasco sauce).

There is also a note: "French and Italian chestnuts are served in place of vegetables." (Whether this is a comment on those specific chestnuts or on the cooks who use them is unclear.)

All in all, early recipe writers seemed to regard the chestnut with suspicion. In the 1886 "Mrs. Rorer's Philadelphia Cook Book," we find recipes for chestnuts with brown sauce (basically a veloute). In "Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book," published in 1898, that dish has become chestnut a la poulette, basically with the addition of some celery seed.

In the latter book is this note: "Chestnut cakes, muffins or griddle breads are palatable and wholesome. Chestnuts may be substituted in bills of fare for rice or potatoes."

There are several possible reasons for the recipe shortage. First, sometimes the most commonly found foods are those that don't appear in cookbooks. Today, for example, hamburger and hot dog recipes are fairly rare. Everyone knows how to make them.

Then there's the class thing. In other countries, chestnuts were staple foods of the poor. Cookbooks, especially in the 19th century, were written for the upper classes.

And the size of the American chestnut might have been a hindrance. They were so small that you'd have to shell three or four times as many as their European cousins to wind up with the same amount of food. In fact, Mrs. Rorer's recipe for candied chestnuts (which she calls by the French name marron glace), calls specifically for European nuts, saying, "Our own may be used equally well, only they are small and difficult to shell."

Finally, it could be that even in the poorest parts of the United States, people weren't hungry enough to have to rely on a chestnut-heavy diet. Even Appalachia was a veritable garden compared to the farmed-out regions of the Mediterranean basin.

It could be that the only people truly nostalgic for chestnut polenta are those who never had to subsist on it.

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