It’s the season when Manhattan’s hot-nut pushcarts are out in force, peddling not only honey-roasted varieties from the signature flame-lettered Nuts4Nuts stands, but also whole chestnuts, kept warm in a foil-covered pan under an incandescent light bulb and filling the air with a rich, smoky scent that wafts down Midtown’s street corridors. To many New Yorkers, the scent is one of the harbingers of the winter holiday season.
But far from the spangles of Rockefeller Center, on a diesel-clogged stretch of Kissena Boulevard in Flushing, Queens, is One Chestnut. Tucked up against a hair salon/bodywork/foot spa that also sells MoneyGrams, the diminutive yellow street cart with a peaked bamboo roof (its sharp corners padded with burlap) sells chestnuts “From the Yan Mountains” in China.
Rather than being roasted on the coals of an open fire, acquiring the charred skin of traditional Christmas chestnuts, these chestnuts are roasted in a pit of undulating hot black pebbles. The gravel, churned from beneath by a machine, washes continuously around the nuts, slowly warming them to the core without burnishing their surface.
The nuts are sold by the half pound and are scooped into a paper bag with perforations to let out steam.
A sign warns customers to wait five minutes before eating, because the nuts emerge piping hot, and retain their warmth for about an hour. I tucked a few into my pocket and fondled their hot, smooth surface to warm my fingertips. Midtown chestnuts are sold pre-cracked down the middle, and the shell peels cleanly off the hearty yellow nutmeat, which you pop whole into your mouth.
The Flushing chestnuts are smaller, and require dexterity to extract. The vendor, who speaks little English, demonstrates how to squeeze the warm nut between the thumb and forefinger to break open the shell. The sensation is like pressing on a rubber button: a bit of resistance as the shell bends toward the soft nut inside, then pops back.
Despite several determined attempts—and puzzled laughter from the vendor—I am unable to crack the shell with my fingers and resort to breaking it between my teeth. The shell is tough and woody but finally splits. I squeeze it to push out the nutmeat, which is yellowish-green, slightly grainy and rubbery, and has a sweet, meaty flavor.
With my bag of warm nuts in hand, jackfrost nipping at my nose—and serenaded by a choir of street vendors hawking, “Masks! Wipies! Hand sanatizah! One dollah? What’s-a-matter? What else ya gonna do with a dollah!”—I push through the Main Street crowds. I pass sidewalk tables cluttered with aluminum pots, sponges, fidget spinners, and bunny-eared headbands, boxes spilling over with dragonfruit and long beans, and tubs of fish still flailing in their death throes, and I think of the mountains of northern China, where these nuts grew and began their long journey to become part of my New York City Christmas.