"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . ." Roast some chestnuts or plant a chestnut tree.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 19, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
One of the harbingers of the holiday season is the appearance of chestnuts - roasted chestnuts from push cart vendors on New York City streets and the intriguing fat polished brown nuts in produce markets. It’s a tradition. Roasting chestnuts or at least eating roasted chestnuts is something you must do every year, like making fruit cake, in order to fulfill all of the hedonistic requirements of the season. So, here's how to roast chestnuts, and while we are at it, lets consider planting a chestnut tree so chestnuts will be here for generations to come.
How to Roast Chestnuts.
Here's Peggy Trowbridge Filippone's recipe for roasting chestnuts from About.com 
With a little preparation and attention, it is easy to roast chestnuts at home. Peel roasted chestnuts as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Once they cool completely, they are difficult to peel.
INGREDIENTS: 1/2 pound chestnuts PREPARATION: Preheat oven to 425 F. Find the flat side of each chestnut and cut a large X with a sharp paring knife all the way through the skin. Place chestnuts on a shallow baking pan and place in the oven to roast for about 30 to 40 minutes, depending on size of nuts. Shake pan several times to rotate chestnuts so they will cook evenly. If you just want them cooked enough to peel, roast for 10 to 15 minutes. Peel roasted chestnuts as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Once they cool completely, they are difficult to peel. However, they may be reheated briefly to aid in peeling. [Sponsored Links deleted]
Chestnuts may also be roasted on the outdoor grill. Watch carefully and turn them often. Another favorite method for small amounts is stovetop, particularly on a gas stove. Place on top of a flame-tamer and cover with a deep lid. Roast over low heat until done, about 10 minutes, turning often to cook evenly. Yield: 1/2 pound roasted chestnuts 
Harvesting and eating roasted chestnuts in the late fall is a tradition probably as old as man's use of fire.
Plant a Chestnut Tree.
Most people know that the nut of the American chestnut, Castanea dentata, was a food for the aboriginal inhabitants of North America, and that the majestic trees, soaring to 120 ft. and up to 15 ft in diameter, persisted here until nearly the entire species was decimated by the chestnut blight (Endothiaparasitca) in the 1930s. Today, The American Chestnut Foundation has started a program of back breeding to produce blight resistant American chestnut trees. The purpose of this program is to re-introduce the American chestnut as a forest tree. 
1. American Chestnut. Castanea dentata. 2. Allegheny chinkapin. Castanea pumila var. pumila.
The Allegheny chinkapin or chinquapin, Castanea pumila var. pumila, is a dwarf relative of the American chestnut, and both are susceptible to chestnut blight. However, in forests where American chestnuts have been reduced to mere sprouts, Allegheny chinkapins seem to be holding their own if they can get enough light for growth.  The Allegheny chinkapin is a small tree to 30 ft. and the bur holds only one small very sweet nut. Chinkapins are discussed in this thread in the Fruit and Nut Forum. A number of American chestnut hybrids are now available. 
There are, however, several other species of chestnut trees that produce wonderful chestnuts. The Chinese chestnut, Castanea mollissima, provides most of the commercial chestnuts available in markets. (See Thumbnail) The European or Spanish chestnut, Castanea sativa, produces a large sweet nut. The Japanese chestnut, Castanea crenata, is a large tree from 40 to 60 ft at maturity. It produces relatively large chestnuts that are 1 or 2 inches in diameter. There are two or three nuts in a bur. Paul Sisco, an American Chestnut Foundation Regional Coordinator, describes the major types of chestnut and features that distinguish each species. 
R.H. Zander of the Missouri Botanic Garden offers a more technical guide to the identification of chestnut species.  Taynors, Darius, and Garden Mermaid discuss vendors and chestnuts in this thread in the Fruits and Nuts Forum. There are recipes and links to more recipes here also.
Horsechestnuts: Conkers and Buckeyes.
There are a few types of trees that closely resemble chestnuts, but they are not true chestnuts (castanea spp.). Of interest are the Horsechestnuts.  The Horsechestnut, Aesculus hippcastanum, is a majestic tree that produces fruit encased in a burr, similar to a chestnut, but the fruit is not edible. The nuts contain Aesculin, a toxin to many animals including humans. Aboriginal Americans, however, were able to leach the toxin from the nut, rendering the nut meal edible. They also used the powdered horse chestnut's toxic ability to stun fish.  In England horsechestnuts are called "conkers". (See photograph 6)  The nuts or conkers are fascinating toys for young children, especially young male children. The rules for the game of "conkers" are described in this Wikipedia article.  The North Dakota version of that game, "Kinger" is played with Ohio Buckeye nuts. In North Dakota, the game was considered a boy's game, but girls were allowed to kiss the buckeyes.
5. Horsechestnut. Conker Tree. Aesculus hippocastanum. 6. Conkers and Fruit Cases.
According to Ron Smith, Horticulturalist for the North Dakota State Extention Service, the relationship of Buckeyes to Horsechestnuts is analogous to the relationship between the spider monkey and King Kong. The Ohio Buckeye, Aesculus glabra, is usually a much smaller tree.  The State of Ohio, in fact is called the Buckeye State, and of course everyone from Ohio thinks just being from that state is lucky even if they now live in Florida.  And of course, most people who know football, know that the Ohio Buckeyes are not horsechestnuts. 
There is an American folk tradition that carrying a buckeye in one's pocket will bring good luck. Lucky buckeyes were carried in men's pockets, sometimes through the decades of a man‘s life. In fact, sorting through some 5000 artifacts of a historic house here in Greensboro, Alabama, I was stunned by the paucity of material remains I could assign to a man who had lived in that house for nearly all of his 100 years. A bible study notebook, a bentwood cane, and a polished buckeye: these were the possessions that remain from a very long life.
10. Horsechestnut tree in full bloom 11. Detail. Horsechestnut Flowers.
PHOTO CREDITS: Photographs 1 - 9: Daves Garden Plant Files. Photographs 10-11. A.C. Church, with permission. Thanks, Allan.
Thumbnail. Ohio Breezy. Chinese Chestnuts. Castanea mollisma.
Riversandbar. American Chestnut. Castanea dentata.
Penn Pete. Chinkapin. Castanea pumila var. pumila.
Philomel. Spanish Chestnut. Castanea sativa.
Philomel. Spanish Chestnut. Castanea sativa. Chestnuts in burr.
Kennedyh. Horsechestnut. Conker tree. Aesculus hippocastanum "A very old Horsechestnut tree (and snowdrops) in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, England, April 1998.
Philomel. October 3, 2004. "Conkers and fruit cases SW France"
Decumbent. Ohio Buckeye. Aesculus glabra.
Viburnum Valley. April 19, 2007. "Ohio Buckeye end on view closeup of flowers showing radial arrangement, Nicholasville, Ky."
Magpye. June 17, 2007. "A couple of 'nuts' (fruit) on the Ohio Buckeye at the Ponca Elk Center, Ponca AR"
Horsechestnut in full bloom beside a country road near Buckley, Michigan. A.C. Church.
Detail. Horsechestnut flowers. A.C. Church.
About Gloria Cole
I am a retired archeologist and curator of an historic house museum. I live in Greensboro, Alabama, a small rural historic Southern town, with my two dogs, a rabbit and (by recent count) two cats. I am upgrading a 100 year old neoclassic house and clearing and planting my two-and-one-half acre property. Of plants, I love roses best of all.