NEW FRANKLIN — In the middle of a field in New Franklin, farmers roasted chestnuts they brought from all over the Midwest on open fires.
They also boiled them. And made them into soups. And cooked them in ways that many folks would never have thought to do.
"There used to be an American chestnut tree, but it died out in a blight from Asia in the 1900s," said Michelle Hall, MU Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center's information specialist. "We're one of very few universities doing research on chestnuts, and we've been trying to figure out which types of trees grow best in Missouri and what to recommend to local growers. The U.S. imports most of their chestnuts, so it's a big growth opportunity in the local market."
The farmers sold their chestnut products at the eighth annual Missouri Chestnut Roast on Saturday, hosted by the MU Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center's chestnut research program. Attendees sampled the different chestnut recipes, watched cooking demonstrations and cracked open information on what farmers and researchers called the "un-nut."
"Chestnuts are something we're introducing to Missouri growers," Michelle Hall, the research center's information specialist, said. "You always hear the song, but most people have never had a chestnut, so it's fun to introduce people to this new crop that doesn't taste like any other nut."
Here's what participants had to say about the mysterious nut:
Eric Cartwright, executive chef at MU Campus Dining Services
Position at the festival: Chestnut cooking demonstration instructor
Samples: Carolina chestnut pork, jalapeño chestnut bread, chestnut hummus and coconut lime chestnut wontons.
Favorite chestnut recipe: "I really like the hummus," Cartwright said. "I've done the hummus before, but the three others are new. It's fun to have a forced inspiration, like chestnuts."
Fact about chestnuts: "The biggest thing is it's the 'un-nut.' Most nuts are high in fat, but this nut is low in fat and high in starch. You also can't just crack the shell and eat it like any other nut. You have to cook them."
Tommy and Teresa Capps, owners, Capps Chestnut Orchard
Sold: Colossal, large, medium and small chestnuts, along with chestnut chili to sample and buy.
Favorite chestnut recipe: "I like them roasted better," Teresa Capps said. "But chili is my second favorite."
Fact about chestnuts: "We've found that a chestnut is actually a fruit and will mold, but we'll just throw ours in the freezer."
Charlie and Debbie Milks, owners, Chestnut Charlie's
Sold: Roasted and raw chestnuts.
Favorite chestnut recipe: "Oh my gosh, Wolfgang Puck's braised chestnuts," Debbie Milks said. "Actually, can I have two favorites? There's a chestnut bisque I really like, too."
Fact about chestnuts: "It's the only nut with vitamin C in it."
Describe the taste of chestnuts: "It's most like a sweet potato. But I've heard chicken and hard boiled eggs before, too."
Ken Hunt, research scientist at MU Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center
Position at the festival: The self-described answer man helped with roasting and took questions about chestnuts.
Favorite chestnut recipe: "I make a hearty soup that I like with chestnuts, carrots, parsnips, leaks and paprika flavoring," Hunt said.
Fact about chestnuts: "They're not a regular nut. They're starchy instead of oily like other nuts are — more like brown rice."
Amber Gaddy, banjo player for Nine Mile Band
Position at the festival: live musical entertainment
Experience at the festival: "We've never been before and wanted to go," Gaddy said. "It's just a really laid-back atmosphere, and now we get to go walk around and try things."
Favorite chestnut recipe: "I make an awesome mushroom chestnut stuffing."
Describe the taste of chestnuts: "I think they taste a little eggy. It's an egg flavor."
Natalya Shlyakhtina, Columbia resident
Experience at the festival: "I wanted to go and try a chestnut because I've never tried one before and know very little about them," Shlyakhtina said.
Favorite chestnut recipe: "I just like the boiled chestnuts."
Describe the taste of chestnuts: "I really can't explain. Maybe a little bit potato — definitely not something I eat every day."