“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” begins The Christmas Song, the 1961 Nat King Cole classic that is heard without fail every winter throughout America. Not everyone has a fireplace in their home, but chestnuts can usually be found in markets and shops. I buy roasted chestnuts every year, just after being hit by those lyrics over the radio or in the malls.
In Japan they are called “kuri,” a word completely different in both sound and form to “tochi.” This is as it should be, as these two nuts are unrelated, at least as far as Mother Nature is concerned. However, they do look a bit alike, being brown, round and bigger than an acorn. This is probably why their names are similar in some languages. In English, for example, kuri is chestnut while tochi is horse chestnut. Why “horse”?
Maybe it was because people in 16th-century Istanbul fed the seeds to horses to help them with coughing, and so used the word “horse” to name them. Of course, farmers today know that horse chestnuts are bad for horses. They can also make a person seriously ill, unless they are prepared in a special way. But I think a better explanation is that “horse” as a prefix can mean “big,” and horse chestnuts are pretty big.
We had plenty of horse chestnut trees where I grew up in New Jersey. In autumn, they would rain down onto yards like there was no tomorrow. We’d collect them, trade them, kick them around. And we’d take turns throwing them at targets for accuracy. Many a pitcher’s arm was developed this way. The nuts were smaller than a baseball so you couldn’t practice throwing curves, but they sure were plentiful and cheap. If you weren’t careful you might miss the target completely and hit something — or someone — else. Not that I ever did, mind you. Not even accidentally.
Why were there no edible chestnut trees in my town? I wondered. In fact, the American chestnut was extremely common once, but it was almost totally wiped out by a tree infection imported from Japan in the late 19th century. That must have thrown a wrench into Japan-U.S. relations at the time.
The good news was that the Japanese chestnut trees were resistant to the disease, and that it was possible to cross-pollinate the species to raise stronger trees in the U.S. Those new, stronger trees have been spreading across the landscape for a few decades, and kids in my neighborhood are probably collecting real chestnuts by now. They fly through the air just as well as horse chestnuts, I’m sure, but you can eat them, too. That’s a good deal. (Tony László)