A Case for Handwriting: Candied Chestnuts

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

-Chestnuts, a treat that demands a bit of sweat.-

So what happened to handwriting? It's a good question to ponder and after reading Philip Hensher's recent article from The Guardian, I think we all should. Handwriting is a task that involves a steady hand and practiced thought, and it's quickly disappearing from our world of electronic correspondence.

Everyone prefers to print these days, or so it seems, and that's fine. It's almost guaranteed to be understood, so that's a plus. But I feel printing lacks real and true conviction. I see it as a means to an end.

(Plus, I must admit, my printing is atrocious. Just... it looks like a third grader with Parkinson's. I am ashamed of it, so I never use it. Too much cursive crippled my print.)

While most of my classmates quickly abandoned their scripts like pets left behind after a move and cruelly put out of sight and mind I nurtured mine. For me, the strange looped G's and terribly affluent "z's" of cursive handwriting were a gateway. Cursive was a key to adulthood. A way to show sophistication and maturity. It was a means to set myself apart from my peers. But, most importantly, it was to model myself after my parents.

My parents both write all their correspondence in their signature handwriting. My mother's cursive is short and powerful with a quick hand that slashed a single, efficient line through all the "t's" in words like "throttle" and "transportation." Just as opposite, my father's notes showed a more reserved, sometimes forgetful hand where the occasional "i" went un-dotted like little men without their heads. His handwriting wasn't illegible like most therapists; instead it was short and contained with each mindful letter properly connected for ease of both secretary's transcription and patient's prescription. (Minus those beheaded "i"'s, of course.)

-My older brother's script was just goddamn illegible. Frickin' teenagers.-

When I was a child I would go through their papers when they weren't in the room and read their writing. I didn't matter what it was - shopping lists, random notes on post-its, letters to co-workers, and a few documents I probably shouldn't have read but at the time didn't understand - I dissected and digested each loop and curl until I could finally read their writing with a simple glance. I felt it gave me insight to who my parents were. Through the breakdown of handwriting from start to finish I understood my dad's frustration with having to write so much. I could interpret my mother's mood as she wrote, a hurried hand when she was in a rush or frustrated or how the arches in her "f's" opened up when she was cool and calm.

For everyone in my family printing was a chore. It was slower, meant to be legible for the everyman, and contained little personality. Printing was perfunctory whereas handwriting was expressionistic. In addition, both of my parents pushed us to practice our handwriting and develop flare for it. We were a clan of cursive writers and that's all there was to it. We're eclectic that way.

So through genetics and no small nudge from upper class aesthetics and expectations I took to handwriting and still prefer it today.

Once I had it mastered I slowly altered it through the years. I added a bar to my 7's to give them bit more measure. My 8's graduated from two circles stacked on top of one another like deflated rubber balls falling into themselves into a singular motion that moved with the delicate flash of a fencer's epee.

At one point, and I remember this clearly, I was doodling little stars in my notebook in seventh grade. I realized - it was like a firecracker going off - that I could do similar with the two "t's" of my last name. A star secretly embedded. Only for me to know (well, now all of you). A way to show, "This is me. Garrett. This is my mark. Of this document, I approve. And I am awesome."

The star remains today.

I remember signing my first lease and after so many signatures I quickly adapted my initials into a shorthand signature. I modeled it after my mom's: the initials both in capitals, connected, and then looped around in a circle.

And just like that I inherited a piece of my mother's hand.

-It sits on a shelf next to my father's eyes. *insert rimshot*-

Handwriting has fallen out of style and practice. Many schools don't teach it and as a result many kids and even teenagers can't even read it, which saddens me. We communicate by text and e-mail, we write our papers on Word, blogging certainly doesn't require a pen. In fact, when I write thank you notes by hand I am shocked at the positive response. "A written note?! Thank you! I haven't gotten one of these in years!"

How sad is that?

But I can see why most people type. It's more applicable these days and it is faster. Whereas you have to strike or scratch out with your pen any mistakes because they will exist forever even under that storm of scribble you put over it that still just shows you fucked up, the delete button will wash all sins away. There's not only underline, but bold, italics, fonts of every kind; none of which cursive can really do (except for underline). In text and email we develop similar personal cues that handwriting may possess, but LOL in place of a period can hardly be called unique.

The thing is that none of these means of writing contain your soul or personality the way your handwriting can. They don't capture your very movements at a contained point and space in time. You are physically connected to the pen as it becomes an extension of your body.

Lastly, handwriting encourages patience. Remember that? That thing before we could Google the answer to any question or had to wait to go home to make a phone call (lord, kids today will never know these TRIALS many of us suffered through). That thing you had as you listed to the sounds of dial up? Handwriting requires us to reflect on what we want to say and how we want to say it, to focus on the meaning behind each word and how it will be interpreted. There can be no rush as it leads in illegibility and confusion in both tone and purpose.

The effect is we display our souls, personality, and thoughts in our words. It shows we appreciate someone enough to take time out in our day to give this person (even if it's just yourself) some thought. Handwriting is appreciated.

So it can be with food. Some recipes, like handwriting, take forethought. Take marrons glaces. Candied chestnuts. A four day recipe. Not much work after the first day (which is a nightmare, I admit) but requiring patience and determination.

The result? Heavenly candies that you'll be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Sweet, vanilla laced chestnuts that are soft and rich. So, so rich. The chestnut syrup that results on the side? You could sell it for $20 for 8 ounces and you could still make a killing. There are few things that taste as good in the world and I promise you, chestnut syrup is one of the best foods in the world. Period.

Candied Chestnuts

2 pound chestnuts, shelled
2 pounds sugar
2 1/2 cups water
1 vanilla bean, split and seeded

1. Place the chestnuts in a large pan with just enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 minutes. Drain the chestnuts and allow to cool. Peel off the fibrous skin (some use a towel for this, other a flash in cold water; either way expect some work). Some of the chestnuts will break into bits. It happens. Don't stress. Or do... whatever floats your boat.

2. In another pot place the peeled chestnuts, sugar, water, and vanilla bean. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take off heat and allow to cool. Place the mixture in a container and place in the fridge overnight.

3. Repeat the previous step three more times (use the same cooking liquid). You want the chestnuts to absorb that chestnut-vanilla syrup.

4. After the last boiling, place the drained chestnuts on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Preheat an oven to 250F. Place the baking sheet into the oven and turn off the heat. Allow the chestnuts to dry in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until they have firmed up and the surfaces of the nuts are dry. Place on yogurt and devour it. Share if you want, I guess.

5. Take the liquid and add about 1/4 cup more sugar. Bring to a boil and cook hard for about 5-10 minutes, stirring every so often. You'll have a delightful sauce that just, fuck, seriously... just try it.


  1. Great post to make me think of dad. First, he's got beautiful cursive writing. Although I know it, mine looks sloppy like a 10 year olds. I prefer to print, and that's just as sloppy. Second, my dad, being British, loves chestnuts. So I will have to make these for him. Thanks, G.

    1. Oh my printing is awful. We should compare notes and see if they're legible.

  2. Loved this post. My cursive was abysmal in grade school, where we had weekly lessons along the lines of some expert's take on what our handwriting should look like. (Bitter much?) By the time middle school rolled around, I began to develop my own style, and consequently, the legibility improved. Sadly, I'm one of those who've become lazy about handwriting, partly because my life doesn't require much of it. Though, when it does, cursive is my preference.
    With regard to this line, "At one point, and I remember this clearly, I was doodling little stars in my notebook in seventh grade. I realized - it was like a firecracker going off - that I could do similar with the two "t's" of my last name." Did you change your last name, or did you mis-type? : )
    I don't know if I can get my hands on chestnuts around here, but these sound worth every bit of labor.

    1. You can buy shelled ones in a jar or frozen ones and candy those. =)

  3. I remember my third grade year, so miserable, frustrated and lonely. We began learning cursive that year and it was the sole bright spot. I felt so glamorous and sophisticated. Many years later, my third-grader is now dashing off her name in cursive, her capital S a gorgeous flourish. She tells me, "It's so glamorous, Mom, like an autograph!" Some things never change.

  4. Loved reading your post, my hubby says my handwriting is better than his. I don't know what will happen with my 3 1/2 year old. She is only interested in drawing means making circles every where. I will wait and see how her handwriting turned out.

    Candied chestnut looks yumm. I need to try it when I can get hold of it.

  5. I remember reading that article and going that's so true! ( and also, I sound so OLD....even though I'm only 19) But it's really sad that a lot of my friends have never had handwriting classes/lessons so to speak. We were allocated 1/2 hr everyday in 3rd and 4th grade for cursive handwriting! I've always admired my parents' handwriting- like you, I used to read little bits they wrote on to figure out what it meant- it made me feel really special when I could read it.
    Long story sort, I like this post! :)
    Question about the chestnut syrup- do you think it could be used in baking instead of golden syrup or something? or is it not quite that sweet?

    1. On the syrup, I'm not sure. Glad that you love the post, though. =)

  6. Oh my good gosh, I think I might actually love you! I first came across Marron Glace in Venise and fell in love.. the scenery of Venise with the wonderfulness of Marron Glace? Perfection! ...unfortunately.. you don't get them in my country.. untill last week when I saw a shop selling 6 of them for £8 (probably equivilent to $13) ..and honestly.. I was tempted. But now I know how to make them myself?? Oooooooh I can not wait!

    1. Good luck, Hannah! And, yes, way cheaper this way. ;)

  7. Oh boy: reading this post reminds me how bad my handwriting is. At one time, it used to be legible- and my cursive writing wasn't half bad either. But of course, since I'm a Physician Assistant, my hand writing went to hell :-( My husband swears that I went to PA school just to learn how to write illegibly! No, it was the outcome of school and training. Anyway, I love chesnuts, but have only used them in stuffing for Tom Turkey. I must try this recipe. Will let you know how it goes.Thanks.

  8. Cursive is my default way of writing, and if only everybody could read cursive. It makes me very sad that I have to print almost everything I write because people can't read handwriting. I think by time I was in high school, I was the only one who still used cursive. I still use cursive as much as I can get away with, but people are always telling me to print. They tell me my handwriting is pretty, though. So I guess it's art, not a way of communication.

    1. If people can't read handwriting then they need to learn or be judged as incompetent.

  9. I think typing does have disadvantages. But the advantages far outweighs them....specially for people like me who's gut unreadable cursive handwriting.

  10. I like handwriting notes and letters but my handwriting is awful but that's because I did a PhD and I've ended up with appalling handwriting which to be honest look as if lots of little spiders have dipped their feet in ink and rushed crawled across the page. I have to admit that I love writing in fountain pen since it reminds me of my childhood, a slower time, when life wasn't so rushed. I like the sound of the nib on the paper and it also forces you to slow down and think about what you write since otherwise you risk your handwriting being one thin potentially blobby line rather than a legible word! Thank you for the recipe and your wonderful thoughtful piece on cursive handwriting. Print...grrrr urgh...

  11. Beautifully written post. Only, you didn't include a sample of your handwriting! I also found that I could put a secret star in my name by how I write A for my middle initial.

    Now, to go buy some chestnuts to make this recipe!

  12. Penmanship and cursive was always an important aspect of school when my siblings and I were being homeschooled by my mother and father. Grades were deducted because of untidiness, so they definitely made it a point! My mother had effortless writing and could even make a blunted #1 pencil look impressive. When she passed away when I was 10 I scrutinized her letters, notes, lists, etc. to try to copy her style in some small way. Her capital "R" was my favorite and since it is the first letter in my name, I stole her R and have been using it in my signature since. It is just a small, simple way for me to keep something from my mother at all times.

    1. Yep, we lost points for untidiness, too. I think it should still work that way.

  13. Garrett - This looks awesome and I just started them (yea, peeling not fun!) My question is this - they'll be finishing Thurs, when oven space will be at a premium. Do you think drying them in my dehydrator would still produce satisfactory results? (I would hate to ruin them the day of serving.

    Thanks! First comment, but have been reading for years - love your writing and pictures as much or more than your amazing recipes!

    1. Hey Melanie! First, thank you for taking the time to comment. Second, as for the dehydrator? Hmm, could work. I honestly don't know on that one. Could always just cook them a day early. I doubt it would affect them too badly. Just won't be as sweet. =)

  14. I just undertook this project as dessert for Christmas dinner. The syrup is barely simmering and already it tastes amazing.

  15. There really is somewhat special about getting Welles' words directly from a transcript. It's so much more stimulating to get every nasty, brilliant detail than to have it sanitized or filtered by memory. I wonder how many people could just talk like that and be interesting enough to fill a book? Thanks for the link to my review!Transcription service


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