Ark of Taste
Chinquapins have a single nut in the burr, unlike chestnuts that have nut divisions. The chinquapin tree is excellent for fresh eating, roasting, or for wildlife food. The size of the edible nut is compared to an acorn or hazelnut. The plants usually bear one nut per bur and have burs (involucres) that open into two halves, such as a clam shell. There are few nuts that can rival the uniquely exquisite flavor of a native chinquapin.
On November 26, 1898, the Trenton Evening Times wrote an article about the stir a rare appearance of chinquapins in a northern market occasioned. The seller observed, “They are more delicate than the chestnut and of rare flavor, but too small for the candy and cake maker to bother with or to be used for the table. They are nice to nibble at in between times... The best of them are exceptionally sweet, tender and well-flavored... The chinquapin doesn’t need cooking like the chestnut to reduce it to toothsomeness.”
An important component of the foodways of the various Native peoples of the southeastern United States, its uses were recognized in several of the earliest European explorer and settler narratives. Rodrigo Raniel, chronicler of the Desoto expedition of the late 1530s, noted their presence near the Timucua village, Cholupaha, in Alachua County: “They found much food and many small chestnuts, but the trees that bear them are only two palms high and they grow in prickly burrs.” (D. F. Austin, Florida Ethnobotany, 2004). Thomas Harriot in his 1590 narrative of Virginia (the Roanoke colony) noted that the indigenous peoples ate a kind of chestnut that could be consumed raw, although some mashed and boiled the nut meats. Captain John Smith in his history of Virginia famously preserved the name of the nut — Chechinquamin — “which they esteeme a great daintie.” Smith noted that it was dried and stored as part of the community’s regular store of provisions. “Of their Chesnuts and Chechinquamins boyled them make both broath and bread for their chiefe men at their greatest feasts.”
Europeans did not embrace the chinquapin-based foods of the Natives (chinquapin spoon meat, chinquapin bread), but regarded the wild nut bushes as sources of forage for incidental consumption. Local markets for chinquapins set foragers collecting them in the wild at the end of the 19th century. The nuts were dried in the sun to prevent mold. David Southern observed that the twentieth century brought an expansion of applications for the plant. In rural areas the roots were dried and made into a tea consumed as a febrifuge. The wood of the chinquapin tree was shaped into fence posts and railroad ties. None of these applications took place on sufficient scale to warrant the systematic improvement and cultivation of the tree.
Later in the 20th century, as ecological consciousness grew, commentators began pointing to the important function performed by the chinquapin as a wild food source in those southeastern landscapes that had been ravaged by chestnut blight. Though the blight does affect the chinquapin, it possesses greater resistance to it than the American Chestnut, Castanea dentata. Birds, small mammals, and deer eat the ripened nuts.
Because of destruction of large portions of the first growth forest in the southeastern United States, and because of the pressures on plants by the exploding deer population in the region, and because of its susceptibility to diseases (particularly root rot) and infestation, the Chinquapin is under stress in large portions of its range. It is listed as a threatened native species in Kentucky and endangered in New Jersey. The stands of chinquapin in Alabama was largely destroyed during the initial wave of the chestnut blight. It is rare throughout its range and for this reason it is the focus of conservation projects and reforestation efforts.
Photos courtesy of American Chestnut Foundation