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Flavor 21: Chestnuts

October 27, 2015

Paul Dillman of Qualla Boundary makes traditional Cherokee chestnut bread. But he says he's never tasted an American chestnut.

I met Dillman at Jay Huskey's Cherokee Food Booth at the annual Cherokee Indian Fair, where he was preparing Indian dinners: green beans, fried cabbage, fried potatoes, fatback and grease, fried pork chops, and customer's choice of bean bread or chestnut bread. Dillman's mother, Sue Owle, ran Boundary Tree restaurant in Cherokee from 1967 to 1977, and growing up he learned Cherokee cooking from the older Indian women who worked there.

Chestnut bread is a variation of bean bread, a traditional staple food among the Cherokee. It's prepared much the same way, just substituting chestnuts for pinto beans. Dillman calls the bread a "grease delivery system." He prefers it with butter, but "around here," he says, "bacon grease is king."

To make the bread, Dillman boils chestnuts, which are usually stored frozen to prevent weevils, then caramelizes them and mixes them with stone ground corn meal and a little baking soda (traditionally wood ashes) and flour to form a a paste. He wraps the paste in corn husks and seals them, then boils them for an hour. He then unwraps the husks and cuts the bread into slices, slathering each with fatback grease and sometimes sauteeing some of the grease off to give the bread a little crisp before sending it on its way.

The American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) that formerly served as the base for this dish were largely wiped out by the Chestnut blight, Cryphonectria parasitica, a pathogenic fungus that came from the import of Asian chestnuts in the latter part of the 19th Century. The chestnut had been a prized lumber wood and was once a major part of the Appalachian forest canopy. Like native populations devastated by smallpox and other diseases brought by European seafarers, however, American chestnuts lacked immunity to fight off this foreign fungus. By 1940, the blight left the species on the brink of extinction.

Dillman uses Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) in his chestnut bread, which he says are larger than the American variety. He tries to get wild picked rather than farmed nuts, both for taste to be able to save and reuse the flavorful water from boiling the chestnuts without worrying about, as he puts it, "bug spray."

Dillman may never have tasted an American chestnut, but C. dentata does still exist in these parts, in the form of stump sprouts that sometimes grow up to 30 feet tall. Paul Gallimore, founder and director of the Long Branch Environmental Education Center in Leicester, explains that these American chestnuts can even make seed, but ultimately almost all of the trees perish to the blight.

Gallimore has been involved in fighting for American chestnut restoration for over 35 years. At Long Branch, he keeps a nursery of backcrossed chestnuts, which are genetically 75% Chinese and 25% American.

We walk around examining the dropped spiny and extremely sharp burs beneath the trees, in search of any chestnuts that have not already been discovered by squirrels, raccoons, possums, skunks, and the like. "Small mammals are happy to beat us to the chestnuts every year," he says, "so we have to be after them early and often."

I prick myself just gently picking one of the burs off the ground. Gallimore is quick to point to the ingenuity of Mother Nature in protecting its seed. Imagine walking around barefoot on that, he says. Or putting your lips and tongue on it to try to get the chestnuts out.

We finally find a chestnut and Gallimore takes out his pocket knife to scrape away the inner skin before letting me taste the nut. Starchy and sweet, it tastes more like a carrot than a walnut.

"People are often surprised at how sweet the nut is," Gallimore says. "To me, that flavor, you could put 'em in with anything." He says he's run chestnuts through the coffee grinder to mix with stir-frys and soups, but his favorite way to eat them is raw.

Arriving in this area in a school bus in the early 70s, drawn to the abundance of green they saw on the map, Paul and his wife Pat Gallimore started out with 150 acres and now protect over 1400 acres as ecological sanctuary and wildlife preserve.

After starting Long Branch Environmental Education Center in 1974, their first project was an edible food forest, including apples, plums, peaches, pears, cherries, nectarines, and hardy almonds. As the Gallimores found out about chestnuts, they brought them in as well.

Filling the gap left by the American chestnuts, acorns of oak trees replaced chestnuts as a food source for animals who once relied on chestnuts. Now, sudden oak death, as well as human pollution, is threatening our oak trees, says Gallimore. And if we lose our oaks, there is nothing else in the wings to replace that food source. So, he says, "It's do or die time."

"Nobody knows which is that thread that's going to cause the whole fabric to unwind, to come apart," Gallimore explains, speaking of our delicate ecosystem. "Chestnuts are the ultimate native that produced food for the wildlife and the humans. That's why it's so important to keep this keystone species for our whole bioregion."

Long Branch is home to hundreds of chestnut trees, and Gallimore encourages folks to come take some of the young backcrossed hybrids — for donation — to plant on their own property. He also wants to get more of the hybrids to state and national forests, to encourage cross pollination between the backcrossed and 100% American varieties.

Gallimore says the goal of Long Branch, which is open to the public every day, is to "reconnect heads, hearts, and hands, for balance and harmony with all that is." Over the years, the center has been graced by Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and Japanese Zen master Roshi Taisen Desihmaru. In 1980, Bill Mollison, considered the "father of permaculture," ran the first permaculture design training program on this continent here.

"We're here to honor the ecological place of every living being," says Gallimore. Besides chestnut harvesting, activities at Long Branch include birdwatching, wildlife tracking, berry and apple picking, trout fishing, and hiking. Gallimore enthusiastically encourages visitors, but asks folks to call or email first: see