By Tim Donnelly
Chestnuts are not just roasting on an open fire — they might be setting your budget on fire this year too.
Last week my mom was in town and I took her to binge Christmas in New York, part of a long con to get her to move back East. She wanted to see the holiday delights she remembered seeing as a kid coming into the city from North Jersey, and I’m always happy to remind her that we have those things here, while in Arizona they have scorpions. We did the Rockettes, we gawked at the trippy disco windows, we walked 8 miles of midtown Christmas.
To complete the experience, we sought out chestnuts, the chewy, warm holiday treat whose cozy aroma fills the air of midtown like endless refrains of Mariah Carey. We tried a couple street vendor stands but never got them in the end: the price is simply too damn high now.
At the corner of 81st and Central Park West, I saw a vendor and tried to grab a bag for us. They were $8, and when the vendor produced only a tiny paper bag — like a lunch sack for a very small cat — I smelled a bad deal and said no.
I made a few more attempts: one vendor in the Upper East Side quoted me $6, when I said no and walked away, he dropped it to $5; I accepted but then when he put the bag of chestnuts in my hand, I could feel just four nuts in there. A price of over $1 per nut is … wacky, so I got my money back and walked away.
Eventually, we gave up, and I sent my mom back to the scorpions. This week, I talked to a few other vendors in Manhattan and they confirmed that indeed, chestnut prices have skyrocketed across the tourist quarters.
In 2010, vendors sold bags of chestnuts for $3 or $4 a dozen, according to a Daily News story, about 25 cents per nut. On Wednesday, I found one vendor outside Bryant Park selling them for $10 for a bag of 10 — $1 per nut, a 400 percent inflation since 2010. (The inflation calculator tells me $4 in 2010 dollars should be worth $5.60 today.)
Other vendors up and down Sixth Avenue had similar prices, with one as high as $7 for five nuts, at $1.40 per nut. I can’t imagine any situation in which a single nut should ever cost a whole dollar, but when I asked a few vendors, who said they're expensive because everything is more expensive right now.
“We’re not just coming here to see the people in the street, we need to make something too,” one vendor at the corner of 50th Street and Sixth Avenue told me. He mentioned operating costs like gas for the generator, money for the stand’s owner and his own salary.
Another seller at 49th Street just cited “the market.” In the prime nut-slinging spot across from Radio City Music Hall, another vendor said the market is always jammed up this time of year: stands like his only stock chestnuts for a few months during the holidays.
The Italian chestnuts — which are the ones we usually roast and eat — are only available during fall and early winter. Chestnut yields across Europe were reportedly down this year too, thanks to a number of factors including fungus, invasive species and — say it with me now — climate change.
In 2010, the Daily News wrote that chestnut sales weren't what they used to be already.
“Every year, they become less and less popular,” a vendor in Herald Square told the paper, saying he only sold about a dozen bags a day.
Market forces or not, gouging tourists is a time-honored and respected New York hustle, like the vendor who was celebrated by some for selling $30 hot dogs near the World Trade Center in 2015. These nut vendors might only be participating in a less official form of gouging that every other tourist trap in this city formalizes. Every holiday pop-up bar, for instance, figures out a way to charge $20 for an old-fashioned with the word “snowball” in the name.
But street vendors have often been a respite of good value, a place for a quick snack when all the surrounding restaurants are martini-lunch, white tablecloth affairs. Now it's a dollar just for a nut.
Roast your own nuts this year
I checked my local Foodtown and found a pound of chestnuts were selling for only $9, which is about nine nuts in street value. I don’t have access to an open fire but I’ve roasted chestnuts many times in my own home and you can too. All you need is an oven, a sheet pan and a knife to cut an X into the shells; follow these instructions for the full recipe.
Give yourself about 30 minutes to prepare the chestnuts before heading out on your own holiday adventure. Throw them into a thermos or reusable coffee mug. It’ll keep them warm so you can gnaw on some nuts at your own pace, and save your $10 for bribing Santa.