Chestnuts roasting on an open fire … as Jack Frost nips at Snow’s nose |

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire … as Jack Frost nips at Snow’s nose

Michelle Rindels
Staff Writer

Cecil Snow describes himself as a bit of a recluse – that is, until it comes to roasting chestnuts.

“It sounds boring and odd,” the 60-year-old Grass Valley resident said, “but when you can give something away to the general public and they’re not being nickeled and dimed, the comments and reactions are genuine. It’s good for the soul.”

He’s the one standing in front of a fire pit in tails and a top hat, entertaining visitors with their eyes all aglow at Grass Valley’s Cornish Christmas and Nevada City’s Victorian Christmas.

By day, he works as a surveyor at Caltrans. Ironically, he got the gig because he was unemployed.

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It all started in 1993, when Cathy Whittlesey of the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce asked if he would be willing to supervise a fire pit at Victorian Christmas.

Out of the blue, a visitor showed up with chestnuts.

Snow, who doesn’t cook, was clueless.

But before long, he learned a few best practices. The flame must be as hot as possible, and he must move the nuts so they don’t burst. A good chestnut is burnt on the outside and warm on the inside; it’s the heat that draws out the sweetness.

Snow, who has lived in the area since 1983, has to gather all his own chestnuts. He starts weeks before the events, contacting area residents with trees in their yards.

One supplier is a Downieville resident who owns a trio of chestnut trees he dubbed “the magical forest.”

A typical tree yields 100 pounds of chestnuts, but the quantity depends on whether Snow can harvest the chestnuts before the squirrels, deer and bears get to them.

One year, he wasn’t so lucky. A bear took a liking to one of the trees and began frequenting the magical forest.

“He knew where the groceries were,” Snow said.

This year, the chestnuts come from a variety of sources, including a few Nevada City

backyards. Some of the nuts come from trees at the cemetery.

He doesn’t charge a dime for the nuts. When he does events, organizers reimburse the cost of the chestnuts. Snow provides the labor, pit and firewood.

It helps that he works for the state.

“Caltrans is very helpful in pointing out wood,” he said. When trees fall or Caltrans clears trees for construction, they tip off Snow, who chops it and uses it for roasting.

Some people show up to Snow’s fire pit year after year, telling him they have to start their Christmas season with a hot, slightly-sweet roasted chestnut.

For visitors, it’s as nostalgic as yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos.

“If I’m sitting on the side of the street trying to sell two burnt chestnuts, they’ll say ‘take a hike,'” he said. “But if you go there and it’s free and I show them how to do it, they’ll say

‘Whoa, I’ve never had a chestnut.”

The spiky-skinned nut is hard to shell and has few other practical uses. Snow said he and his wife once tried making chestnut pancakes, which got a thumbs-down from the kids.

Most of the visitors at his fire pit feel the same way.

“Some people really like them,” he said, “but most people want one or two and they’re done until next season.”

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail or call (530) 477-4247.

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