Bad Nuts and Good Nuts!


I earned my “Worst Parent of the Year” award this last week! I ended up poisoning myself and my daughter and we ended up in the ER for a number of hours after dinner one night, finally making it home close to one in the morning, just a little worse for wear!

I am fully aware that I have been jokingly referred to as the “Urban Scrounge.” Sure, I will own that! I pride myself on acquiring local, organic, home grown, foraged — and yes — sometimes scrounged food. And why not?! The Pacific Northwest, Clark County, Hood River Valley and the Willamette Valley, positively overflow with resources (fruit, veg, nuts, etc.) It is thrilling to find abandoned walnut trees or derelict berry vines and have the pickings all to myself. I love it!

So, when I came across a parking lot downtown Vancouver, littered with fallen chestnuts a few days ago, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I really could not believe my luck and totally could not understand why the nuts were still there. Why hadn’t the squirrels taken them or people picked them up? It was right after that big storm we had, maybe all the nuts came down in the storm and I just happened to be the first one there. SCORE!!

My daughter and I gathered two big bags. They were gorgeous and she was excited that she gathered more than me! I was so excited to have her taste her first roasted chestnut that we got them right into the oven to roast when we got home, so we could have them for desert. They are so sweet. And that was our saving grace; I roasted those little buggers for thirty minutes while we had a ham and bean soup for dinner.

My daughter tasted about a pea size amount, I took about a quarter of the nut. They were hard to peel and it was very bitter in our mouths after we ate it. We did not eat any more and we threw out all that we had roasted. I was frustrated thinking I needed to prep the chestnuts somehow, so I got on the internet and Googled, “why are my chestnuts bitter?” What popped up scared the bejibbers out of me! Horse Chestnuts look just like edible chestnuts, but they are bad! Death in 16 hours! Highly toxic! No cure! Get to the hospital!

The ER folks were great. They got us right in and thought we were a bit funny until they got information back from the Poison Control Center and heard how serious it was. But, there was not much they could do besides monitor us, and make us drink milk. Yuck!

So we sat. We had slightly rumbly tummies; my blood pressure was through the roof and my daughter was shaking so violently that she was rattling the bed. I don’t know if that was because we were so freaked out or because we had toxins in us. It’s hard to tell. Apparently, if we had eaten the Horse Chestnuts raw we would have been in very bad shape, but because I had roasted them and because we had eaten soup, the toxin was minimal.

The whole thing  was also a bit embarrassing because the doctors were cute. Heavy sigh!!!

So here it is- Horse Chestnuts- BAD!

Sweet Chestnuts- GOOD!


And here is the difference: Horse Chestnuts are very round, do not have a point at the bottom and have a very large, round cap. They also have a husk that is like a sea cucumber with big, widely spaced, spikes. Sweet Chestnuts are pointy and have a husk like a sea urchin, very feathery and spiky. They are very prickly if you try to pick them up.


I told my students about our misadventure and one of them brought me some  chestnuts he picked up wondering if they were the good or the bad ones. They were the good ones! So, you guessed it, my daughter and I hightailed it over there to gather some, but you know what? The squirrels had gotten most of them!  We only found five husks with the nuts inside which is about eight nuts total. We roasted them tonight, they were awesome! Definitely worth foraging for!  (And I’m not going to tell you where the tree is because I want them all to myself!)



Janine Blackwell

Janine Blackwell

Food has always been a main focus of my family life! At 12 years old I picked berries during the summer and at 15 I started work in the local cannery. This was my summer job all through college (my father was the production manager for Norpac Foods for 30 years, so I had an in!) Each summer my mom would can and preserve fruit and vegetables so we could have "good stuff" all year long. I attended a cooking school while I lived in England for about a year, but my life took a different turn and I did not go into food professionally. My sister owns a restaurant in Colorado and my brother works for a blueberry processing plant in Silverton, OR. Like I said- a family affair! I teach video and film at Columbia River HS (love it) but I also love to cook, can and preserve. I work to use as much home grown, locally produced and organic product as I possibly can.

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