Ah, the holidays. Christmas is all about love, sharing, sweetness and light -- and keeping the antacids handy. In keeping with the spirit of the season, Chow Bella presents "Eating Christmas," in which some of our favorite writers nosh on the real lessons we learn this time of year. Today, Zach's nuts are roasting on an open fire....
Growing up in Las Vegas, you're not allotted many of the Christmasy traditions of cooler climes. Snowmen are hard to make when it's 60 degrees, and you could only organize a neighborhood snowball fight if you shaved the ice yourself.
So, around Christmas 1996, my father got the notion that if we were going to have any traditions at all, we would have to make our own. But family customs, like nicknames, have to arise organically -- you can't make them up yourself, or the universe will correct your mistake with hilarious consequence. So it was with the chestnuts.
For his first attempt at tradition-genesis, dad found inspiration from what he thought was the purest of muses: The Christmas Song. To him, that lovely tune heard every winter season on the radio exemplified everything Christmas was about. And if we couldn't have Yuletide carols being sung by a choir or Jack Frost nipping at our noses, then BY GOD we would at least have chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
But this was Nevada, where a warm embrace is enough to cause a brushfire, and open flames were outlawed. So we used a grill.
Two things wrong with this. First, a grill concentrates all the heat on one area of the food; that's why you've got to flip the burgers. Second, you're supposed to cut notches in chestnuts before roasting to let the pressure escape. We neglected to recognize either of these issues, which is why, as we gathered around the grill with our eyes aglow to watch our first tradition come to life, the chestnuts began to whistle.
Our gazes narrowed at the expressive shells. "Are they supposed to do that?" my sister asked.
Nope, the universe answered.
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POP POP POW POP POW! It was like someone had set off a string of Black Cats. We dove for cover as woody shrapnel shot across the yard. Molten chestnut guts spat from the grill as if shot from an IED. It was a grisly scene.
After the chaos subsided, we dusted off the bits of shell covering our clothes and began the arduous process of cleaning chestnut goo from my sister's hair. A tradition was born that day, in a way -- the telling of the chestnut assault. But there would be more custom-creating attempts before we were through.