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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

TASTE: Roasted chestnuts

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is up, and Midtown—that hub of New York City holiday fanfare—is starting to fill with its yuletide smell of pine needles, wet wool, hot-dog steam, mingled perfumes—and roasted chestnuts, the quintessential holiday treat, available around an open fire or, if you’re an urbanite, from the same street cart that peddles pretzels and Gatorade.


The city’s fleet of diminutive orange “NUTS 4 NUTS” carts plies street corners year-round, copper pans brimming with oily mountains of honey-roasted cashews, coconut bits, almonds, and peanuts. Chestnuts, however, are available only in the colder months, and are harder to find.


There are usually a few carts stationed near Fifty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue, their tinfoil-lined chestnut pans clipped to the edge like a hand on a hip, an incandescent bulb keeping the nuts warm. [image 2] The flashiest chestnut cart features no fewer than five sunshades and a digital sign scrolling, in mid-November, HAPPY NEW YEAR!


Vendors slit the chestnuts’ outer skins, then roast them till the yellow nutmeats peek out like grinning gnomes. Five dollars buys you a scoop in a paper sack. It’s worth postponing your snack to carry the bundle around in your pocket for five minutes, enjoying the warm orbs tumbling around beneath the paper.


The nutshells are smooth and woody, and as satisfying to peel as mahogany veneer from an old end table; the shell slips off with a papery crackle. You can take the whole nut out, or bite into it while it’s still half in its shell pocket. The meat is dense, sweet, slightly rubbery, and drier and more grainy than most nuts; it lacks the oil of a cashew or peanut. Laid bare in the palm, the nut is fleshy, wrinkled, and vulnerable looking, its interstitial crevasses creating a pleasing pop with each bite.


Be warned: a few roasted chestnuts go a long way. Carry your treat with you as you as a talisman while you imbibe the rest of Midtown’s sensory delights: the tolls of Salvation Army Santas’ bells, the white beard of smoke issuing from a manhole smokestack, the unexpected swishing of ski jackets as we jostle our way through holiday throngs.

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