Chestnuts link American past with Iowa future
Bosnian-Americans drive hours for you-pick chestnuts
By the 1940s, when American composers wrote nostalgic Christmas songs about roasting chestnuts, the American chestnut tree was already largely extinct.
But Chinese chestnuts continued to grow in China, Taiwan, Korea and Bosnia, where the tradition of roasting the sweet nuts over an open fire through the fall and winter months — or until your supply runs out — endures today.
“We roast or boil them and eat them as a snack,” said Fuada Becirevic, 40, a Bosnia native now living in Waterloo. “That is our tradition.”
Finding fresh chestnuts in Iowa was difficult until recent years, when trees planted by a few forward-thinking southeast Iowans started to produce large quantities of nuts.
Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice, two of Iowa’s chestnut pioneers, have about 100 mature Chinese chestnut trees at their Red Fern Farm near Wapello. More than 4,600 pounds of nuts were harvested last fall, with 80 percent of those bought up by Bosnian-Americans, Dice said.
“I had a woman drive all the way from Minnesota — five and half hours,” Dice said. “I still remember a gentleman from Vietnam. He picked up the nuts and cradled them.”
Becirevic trekked more than two hours from Waterloo on Oct. 1 to pick nuts for five hours at Chestnut Acres, an orchard owned by Dan and Celeste Dolan of Muscatine.
Becirevic and her son, Ammar, 6, picked more than 75 pounds of chestnuts — most of which were spoken for by Tuesday, she laughed. “My husband said, ‘Don’t give any more away so we can keep them for winter.’”
Demise of the American chestnut
American chestnut trees were plentiful in the eastern part of the United States until the early 1900s.
“Because it could grow rapidly and attain huge sizes, the tree was often the outstanding visual feature in both urban and rural landscapes. The wood was used wherever strength and rot resistance was needed.”
This is according to the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Chestnuts ripen just before Thanksgiving and Christmas, which made them an ideal holiday snack. This is why 1940s Christmas standards “The Christmas Song” — or as most people know it, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” — and “Sleigh Ride” both mention roasting the nuts as part of winter holidaymaking.
The accidental introduction of a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, started killing off American chestnuts around 1910 and by the 1940s, most of the majestic trees were gone.
“The American chestnut tree was wiped out by chestnut blight,” said Richard Juaron, a horticulturalist with Iowa State University Extension. “There are Chinese chestnuts now being grown in Iowa and hybrid chestnuts.”
Reminder of home
Becirevic was forced to flee her home in Bihac, a city on the River Una in northwestern Bosnia, when war broke out in the early 1990s. Her family lived in Germany for a while, but they could not get visas, so they moved to the United States. Becirevic came to Iowa in 2002, when she was 26.
The American Community Survey estimates about 6,400 Bosnians live in Iowa — which makes it one of the largest immigrant communities.
Roasting chestnuts over an open fire, with the wood burned down to coals, reminds Becirevic of her childhood.
Dolan, who planted his chestnut orchard in the mid-1990s, loves seeing how connected Bosnians are to this relatively new-to-Iowa crop.
“It’s amazing how everyone will reminisce about picking chestnuts,” he said. “Their kids, however, are not as excited.”
How to harvest chestnuts
Glossy brown chestnuts grow in clusters inside a spiny burr. By mid-September, the burrs start splitting and dropping the nuts to the ground. The burrs also fall and some nuts don’t get fully detached from the burr, so harvesting chestnuts can be prickly work requiring gloves.
“If you see a burr, you roll your foot over it and it opens the hull,” Dolan said. “Most people pick them by hand.”
Red Fern Farm and Chestnut Acres sell you-pick chestnuts for $2.50 a pound, less if you go to Red Fern on weekdays. The per-pound price for pre-picked nuts is closer to $4. The harvest is expected to last until the first hard frost, but call ahead to schedule a picking time.
Chestnuts taste best after they’ve been cured for a couple of days to a week. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to six months.
The Bosnian-American community of Waterloo-Cedar Falls is hosting a chestnut-roasting festival Saturday at Burns Park in Waterloo from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Becirevic expects at least 500 people from Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana to attend the festival, where attendees will slow-roast chestnuts over wood fire coals, eat barbecue and celebrate the fall season.
Pick your own chestnuts
— Where: Red Fern Farm, near Wapello, or Chestnut Acres, near Muscatine
— When: Until hard frost
— Cost: $2.50 per pound for you-pick, Red Fern $2.25 per pound on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday
— How: Schedule a picking time. Red Fern (319) 729-5905 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Chestnut Acres (845) 357-3740.
— What: Chestnut roast and barbecue
— Where: Waterloo’s Burns Park, 1101 Campbell Ave.
— When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday