I have been making sherried chestnut stuffing for Thanksgiving dinner for over 30 years. I have to tell you: it’s the best. Everyone says so. Everyone who likes stuffing and has tasted it, that is. But while I was making it for the first time I thought I would never, ever do it again because it was such a tedious task. It still takes me many hours to prepare. So I got to wondering this year, as I scooped chestnuts into a bag at the grocery store: “Why have I kept making the stuff for all these years?” I’m discovering that the reasons have as much to do with family, memories and tradition as they have about striving for culinary excellence.
When I smell chestnuts roasting – anywhere – I’m taken right back to downtown Buffalo, NY, circa mid 1950s. When I was a child, my Italian grand-mother, “Nonna,” would take me through the Christmas-time crowds to see the decorations in the windows of AM &As, Hengerers and Hens and Kelly department stores. But when we got off the bus, we first headed for The Chestnut Man – also Italian – who was roasting his offerings over an aluminum pan of glowing charcoal, a haven in the swirling snow. After exchanging a few words in their native language, Nonna would hand me a small paper bag of warm chestnuts. She showed me how to peel away the shell and eat the fragrant meat as we walked on to see Santa, Rudolph and the whole glorious crew. Though Nonna has been gone these 29 years, each time I fill my oven with chestnuts I feel the comforting grasp of her hand in mine.
When I pick through the chestnuts at the store, I’m also reminded of my dad. On Sundays after church, Dad would always take me and my sister Suzy somewhere fun. These jaunts would often involve a ride to “the country.” At this time of year we would head to Youngstown, NY, a small town down-river from Niagara Falls. There, near a restaurant we loved that sat high on a cliff above the river, we would all gather chestnuts that had fallen to the ground. Dozens of them. Not to eat, of course, but to collect and play with. Dad showed us how to polish the nuts by rubbing them on the sides of our nose, and how to compete in the local chestnut game of “Kingers.” When shopping for chestnuts now, I remember Dad’s voice, his joy in finding a beautiful chestnut and the choice he made to spend his free week-end time with us.
Making chestnut stuffing has become a beloved tradition; something my family looks forward to and marks its years by. And it invites me to be grateful. When I’m peeling the chestnuts, pitting and chopping the dates, cutting the apples and crying from the onions, I enter a reflective space. I’m reminded of 23 years of my childrens’ faces around Thanksgiving tables, and the faces of other loved ones and friends along the way. I give thanks for them all and for the life I get to live. And I hope in some way – through the crazy abundance of this stuffing – I pass along the patient care of Nonna and the exuberant love of Dad to the people I love.