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2003-01-08 | 4:25 p.m.

Fiona’s sweetie of a sister, Maria, had made a chestnut pie. “Would you like a piece of chestnut pie?” Fiona asked me. Homemade pies are so adorable, so homely, modest and low-profile in their aluminum tins. But I’m funny about nuts. It didn’t sound good to me, chestnut pie.

“I’ll try a bite of Duff’s,” I said, trying to be diplomatic. But then I tasted it and wanted my own. The chestnut filling was smooth and yummy and there was a thin coat of chocolate on top.

Duff asked something about the preparation of the pie. Something like, Did Maria harvest these chestnuts herself? Or do chestnut trees even grow around here?

“Well, it’s funny you should ask,” Frank said. “Did you know, Duff, that while chestnut trees were once the most prevalent hardwood species in the United States, they were all but eliminated in this century by a kind of virus known as ‘chestnut blight,’ or Cryphonectria parasitica?

“Why no, Frank, I didn’t know that,” Duff replied. I confess I hardly heard it myself, but there was the faintest undertone of wry good humor and mockery in Duff’s remark, to which Fiona burst out: “Thank you, Duff!” and Frank said, sheepishly, “All right, fair enough.”

The four of us started to laugh loudly. "All right," Frank protested over the din, shaking with laughter. "You made your point."

It is so entirely characteristic of Frank to launch into these mini-lectures on botany, evolutionary biology, natural history, and anything else that captures his imagination that I no longer remember how universally boring his subjects can occasionally be. I myself can usually stay tuned in until fifteen or twenty minutes on, and I also know that if I do find myself zoning out, all I have to do is continue to nod my head encouragingly and ask the occasional baffled question. He really does tell his stories in an engaging way, most of the time, but of course, there is only so much anyone wants to know about chestnuts.

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