November 22, 2012


My earliest memories of chestnuts are of scatterings of them on the ground beneath an old horse chestnut tree behind Georgie Casey's house on Beechwood Street. The fleshy green outer casing could easily be split open to reveal a beautiful brown seed inside. Something about the warm color of those chestnuts and the way they would feel in my hand, smooth and firm, made me, perhaps for the first time, really pay attention to something from the natural world. Of course, once the moment had passed, we would convert them to a pretend pipe, hollowing out a bowl and thrusting in a twig to perfect the illusion. Satisfied, we would walk about the yard like burghers from a Washington Irving novel, puffing contentedly on our chestnut pipes.

Other than that, my only exposure to chestnuts was once a year in my mother's turkey stuffing that she prepared on Thanksgiving Day. When I got married, I proposed adding them to my wife's stuffing, the result being the stuffing perfection that graces our Thanksgiving table. My main job--other than dish washing, no mean task in itself--is to remove the chestnut meat from its tough outer casing and a fibrous inner lining. This involves slicing an X on one side or the other of the chestnut and then heating it until it burst, either in the stove or in a microwave oven. They came out hot, which meant sore fingertips by the time the real job of extracting the nutmeat from the shell was done.

Chestnuts are considered to be a "brain" food because they are so high in complex carbohydrates, which is ironic given that the inner nut of the chestnut bears a strong resemblance to a human brain. The same could also be said of a walnut. The similarity in terms of the waves and inner folds in each is striking, as if, presented with a similar problem of housing a complex piece of genetic topography inside a protective outer casing, nature stumbled upon the same solution more than once.

Which got me to thinking about the brain in a new way, as a seed. I'm not sure what if anything that means, but when you think about it, there has always been a question of the relationship between plant or animal and seed or egg. Samuel Butler once observed that a hen is only an egg's way of making another egg. Are we just a brain's way of making another brain? Given that the entire purpose of the body is to provide a housing to protect and sustain the brain and to do its bidding when it needs observe something or wants to go somewhere, the question is not an unreasonable one.

For now, I am content to let my brain contemplate itself. There is turkey and oyster-chestnut stuffing to be eaten, along with sweet potatoes and green beans and pies and some white wine to wash it all down. For those who would enjoy knowing the secret to the ultimate stuffing, I must disappoint you. This recipe will remain within the family, to be passed down, I hope, for many generations to come. That's okay, though, as I have discovered that each variant of stuffing is fiercely defended by its proponents as the one and only way to make stuffing. However you prefer it, I hope your Thanksgiving Day is a good one.

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