What's Special about "Old Fashioned" Chestnuts?
We are, in fact, pretty much the only place you can buy the "Old-Fashioned" type of chestnut. They aren't pure American chestnuts, of course, but hybrids that have much the same size and flavor. We have lots of repeat customers. By the standards of the world chestnut market, they're small—no doubt about it.
It's not that we can't grow big nuts here in Minnesota; we can, and do. But nuts have an ancient magic to them, a primal appeal to our most basic instincts. They are little tough packages, filled with the stuff of life. Life in several senses: the life of a young seedling, and the life of food for us and for other creatures of the world. Excellent food for ourselves, and portable, non-perishable food for our tribe and our children.
Just as a fire in the fireplace draws our eyes and dreams, probably because for most of our past fire meant life and survival for our ancestors, nuts fascinate the basic hunter-gatherer in us all. Children can't resist picking them up, hoarding them. As adults we learn to let acorns lie, knowing they are bitter, but the nut bowl and nutcracker still tempt the primeval in us all.
One of the consequences of this instinctive attraction is the automatic inclination to reach for...the biggest one. We all do it. We can guess at a reasons: Old hunter-gatherers—and before them the primates—were always gathering food with the great likelihood that something would interrupt the work, the sudden appearance of a leopard, say, or the bully from the next campfire looking to steal our food. Under those circumstances it makes perfect sense to grab the big ones first—there's probably more food there.
Though these reasons are long gone, I'm convinced that the preference to take the biggest one remains "hard-wired" in our primate brain. We know that the smaller ones may taste better, and it's very unlikely a leopard will show up in our living room (I'll omit comments about the bully). But if we leave our brains on auto-pilot, our hands will still head straight for the biggest nut in the bowl.
So why do we offer the "Old Fashioned" (small) chestnuts? Why not just go with the flow and give the old hindbrain (and the alleged market) what it wants? Flavor is one answer. Though some large chestnuts do have good flavor, there is some truth to the general expectation that huge nuts can be very bland and small ones more savory.
Sharing chestnuts at the holidays, by the open fire or the microwave, is in fact a ritual literally more ancient than the fire itself. But chestnuts are serious food! A couple big ones will fill you right up, and then the family will wander off, the sharing done, the moment over. The smaller, sweeter nuts can keep the sharing alive much longer.
Look at it this way: would you rather open one big present, or several smaller ones?