“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is the first line of?The Christmas Song, one of my favorite holiday tunes growing up in America. Yet as a child, I never once roasted chestnuts at Christmas, let alone any other time of the year. Before I was born, a blight had devastated the vast majority of American chestnut trees, leaving me and most of my fellow countrymen strangers to the nut, apart from its mention in that timeless song.
In fact, it wasn’t until I came to China that I truly understood the wonders of a freshly roasted chestnut, especially those gathered in the wild.
Years ago in September, I discovered that wild chestnut trees, a variety native to China, thrived in the hills of my husband’s rural Zhejiang village, and were as close to us as the backyard of the family home. “See, there’s a chestnut tree,” he said, pointing out the window from his old bedroom to its trunk and branches just a few meters away from us. I couldn’t believe this tree, a rare sight in the US, actually grew beside the family garden.
So imagine my astonishment when, while hiking some remote hills near the village, I couldn’t walk a few steps without stumbling over chestnuts that littered the ground. It was as if the heavens had decided to rain chestnuts upon the land, instead of water. My husband Jun had the foresight to suggest carrying along a few bags with us, and we began collecting these fall treasures as we meandered up and down the hills. Even though the sky was a melancholy gray, it felt like the sun had shined upon us that afternoon, thanks to the bounty of chestnuts we found and brought home with us.
The real magic, however, came from my mother-in-law, who helped me experience something close to that iconic line from?The Christmas Song?in her kitchen. Her wood-burning stove, with a wok on top, was the next best thing to an open fire. She roasted the chestnuts in the wok along with sweet osmanthus blossoms from the front yard, and filled the house with the intoxicating fragrance of flowers mingled with the caramel aroma of the nuts. I’ll never forget the first time I inhaled it -- it was like being all wrapped up in the warmth and coziness of the holidays, even though Dec 25 was still months away.
That Christmassy feeling was only reinforced by the generous portion my mother-in-law sent up to our room, a huge silver bowl piled high with more roasted chestnuts than anyone could have consumed in one sitting. And even though lunch had finished a few hours ago, we couldn’t resist the natural, sugary goodness of the snack.
Nowadays, whenever I imagine chestnuts, it’s no longer Christmas that first comes to mind. Instead, my thoughts will turn to my husband’s hometown -- the hills scattered with wild chestnuts, the smell of them roasting in my mother-in-law’s fire-powered wok, and the ambrosial flavor when eating them fresh from the stove. These memories have so completely saturated my brain that it’s fall, not winter, that has become the season I most associate with chestnuts. So as much as I love that first line of?The Christmas Song, perhaps it’s time for someone -- maybe me -- to write the lyrics to an autumn melody that sings the praises of freshly roasted chestnuts in China.