/ by Stephanie Burnette
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire was a real thing for my father. He valued nostalgia. Tradition was created by doing things the long way in our house, year after year.
He would make chestnut dressing for Christmas dinner, a formal affair where even children were poured a small dram of wine. “The Chestnuts,” as I referred to them, were in-process days before. My dad would call the local grocery stores and assess who was storing them “properly.” In his estimation this meant in the produce section, cooled but not misted. He would select them by hand, by himself; no one would rush him through this important first step. He’d quote to me his southern mother-in-law (a woman whom he regarded a worthy cook), “Ingredients are what make a dish good.”
I first remember him roasting the funny brown nuts with tongs over a gas flame on the stove. Plunk! They would drop onto a metal pie pan kept covered with foil on the burner next to him. This took hours and required a bit of sweet vermouth in a glass or a cup of coffee he nearly always drank after dinner, a habit that seems inexplicable to me today at the same age.
Later, he acquired an antique copper roaster with a hinged lid. A fire would be built in the hearth and we’d make an event of placing the contraption over the embers. There was a knife in our home reserved for cutting an X into the belly of the chestnuts. I realize this borders on obsessive. At the time I thought him merely exacting.
I admit the smell of roasting chestnuts is intoxicating. Nothing else smells like it, there’s a woodsyness that’s undeniable and I began to identify the season of winter with the aroma of chestnut husks curling away from its fruit. My father would talk of growing up in New England and buying roasted chestnuts from a street vendor. I found the image romantic in an old movie sort of way, since my reality was about to include peeling the stupid things for hours; I was chided for anything other than an unbroken orb of fragrant fruit.
Peeling chestnuts is brutal and to this day I am secretly thrilled buying them by the pound, peeled and vacuum sealed, at Fresh Market. My right thumb twitches as I write this recalling the interior skin of the chestnut being rammed under my nail uninvited.
The finished chestnuts were folded into a mixture of cubed bread, chopped apple, celery, browned sage sausage commingled with ground round, a bevy of herbs and spices, apple cider and a whipped egg. It would chill out in the refrigerator overnight, packed into vintage loaf pans. The recipe was always tripled so the prize pony could be selected after baking it off for the dinner table.
I would eat a scoop of dressing with a puddle of dark gravy next to it. This was not stuffing and the gravy alongside it was not golden; it was a deep mahogany, rich with drippings and a tinge of red wine. Each year my father would make a big deal of me trying at least one chestnut, which meant chewing and swallowing the chalky thing. “Stephanie helped every step of the way,” he’d say, no matter if there was just a few of us around the table or a whole dining room full.
His dressing was built from a childhood which was difficult and full of expectation. I imagine this one dish, made only during the holiday season, was a peace offering to his past, an annual tradition honoring better times or at least a memory filled with some pomp if not always grace.
As we often do, I grew fond of the velvety things, how they could marry savory elements, especially when gravy ran down its rivulets. My father, who was a tremendous gourmand, once told me the secret of perfectly smooth gravy, “You strain it and it’s smooth.”
In light of this, I think he’d forgive my purchased peeled chestnuts or maybe not; I know he’d approve of the cup of coffee I drink in the store while I pick up the package. I have a half-scribbled version of his recipe slipped inside the James Beard Cookbook he gave me when I was pregnant with my first child, a son. The scrawl is nearly illegible, but it’s the prompts I need to keep the recipe on track rather than detailed steps.
My daughter picks through the dressing exactly as I once did. She extracts the chestnuts to the side of her dinner plate, mounding them, building a barricade. She’s happy to inhale all the rest, including copious amounts of turkey or roast. I’ll reach over and snag a chestnut with my fork, toppling her wall, hoping one day she’ll like them too.
I wonder what step my father altered in the recipe. He loved a solid improvement and for sure his version was not to the letter what his father made. He had no sons, so it was me, his slight daughter, that got to watch and learn, though I never remember him instructing me how to prepare the dressing other than the chestnut manifesto. I still own the little knife too; I use it to cut foil off the top of wine. It’s a small dark Henkel knife with a curved blade. It sees the light of day a good bit more than in his day.
I hope my children debate the virtues of dressing over stuffing at their own tables one day. We’ve stopped using the original loaf pans for fear of lead and half the time I forget to strain the gravy. But the tradition lives on. It takes too many steps over too many days to make my father’s dressing and I love it. The kitchen becomes my sanctuary, and no one interrupts me though all are welcome to jump in and help or snag bites of ingredients along the way.
It is a winter activity. One of family and home. Of doing things low and slow. It is a time each year that I openly recall my father, gone now 12 years, and I think about him remembering his family traditions and for that I am grateful. The recipe has become an alter stone.