Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gone Fiddleheadin'

Here in northern Maine, we are currently in the midst of a brief period called “fiddlehead season”.  It’s a period of about two weeks in early May when people can go fiddleheading, of course.

Seems clear enough.

In the unlikely event that I am not making sense to you, let me back up a bit.  Fiddleheads are the furled up juvenile stage of the fern Matteuccia struthiopteris, commonly known as the ostrich fern or fiddlehead fern. They typically proliferate in northern regions of central and eastern North America at this time of year.  Fiddleheads tend to grow best on flat, sandy pieces of land alongside running water.  We’ve got a lot of that.

Fiddleheads are actually a delicious treat that I enjoy a whole lot.  That is really saying something coming from the likes of me, someone known as the most finicky eater this side of Morris the Cat.  Whenever I talk about fiddleheads with people from other parts of the country or the world, I get strange looks, as though they think I am eating actual parts of musical instruments. They are actually in the vegetable category, and when steamed or boiled have the consistency of a cross between spinach and broccoli.  Not the seedy, treetop part of broccoli, but the soft tree trunk part. Some melted butter and a splash of cider vinegar, and there is nothing finer than a serving a fiddleheads.

You’ve got to use some caution when preparing those babies though.  Growing as they do along bodies of water, they may harbor microcooties, also known as bacteria, which can make you pretty sick if you don’t cook them thoroughly before eating.  Nothing can spoil one’s first fiddlehead experience quite like repeated trips to the john to evacuate one end or the other of one’s digestive system.

That’s not to say fiddleheads are up on the dangerous scale with fugu, the Japanese blowfish that can kill you if it is not prepared just so.  Why on earth anyone would want to take a chance on eating something like that is beyond me, and a possible topic for a future blog post.  Suffice it to say, fiddleheads are more akin to raw meat in terms of preparation. As long as you clean and cook them thoroughly, you’ll be fine.

Collecting fiddleheads, or “fiddleheading” is not for the weak of back or dry of foot.  When I was just a little kid, my late, Bing Crosby-loving grandmother used to take me out fiddleheading.  (Mind you, she wasn’t “late” at the time.  That would have taken a lot of the fun out of it.) 

My grandfather would drive us way the heck out on some back road near adjacent farmsteads where they both grew up many years before, and then Gram and I would tramp way the heck further out into the woods until we got to a stream.  The ground was nothing but mud, and in spite of our boots, our feet were cold and soaked before we even got started.  For the next hour or so, my grandmother and I bent over and picked up literally hundreds of the curly little green fronds from the muddy ground and put them into a bag.  It wasn’t so bad for me, given that I was both six years old and relatively close to the ground anyway.  But how my grandmother, in her sixties, with diabetes and more than a few extra pounds on her frame, was able to vastly outpick me and never once let on that she was tired or sore, I’ll never know.   She was a pretty amazing woman in lots of ways.

Afterwards, back at my grandfather’s car, I remember wringing my socks out the backseat window, sitting alongside no less than a half-dozen grocery bags full of fiddleheads.  I had picked two, while my grandmother had picked the other four.  The only reason she had stopped picking for the afternoon was because she was worried about my grandfather growing impatient while waiting back in the car. He was older than she, and not quite as spunky for his age, so needless to say he was not at all game for several hours of back-breaking labor.  He preferred the role of chauffeur and chief reader of the newspaper.

Thirty-six years later, a lot has changed in my life, but one thing has not: I’m still good for about two grocery bags full until I am ready to call it a day.  But it’s much more crowded along the river and streambanks nowadays.  Fiddleheads have grown in popularity here in Maine in recent years, and with that popularity has come an increase in demand and hence, price.  (Hooray for capitalism.)  Area retailers and restaurants are offering several dollars per pound for something that is basically free for the taking in most spots if you want to put in the time and effort to gather.  One of the main access trails to the river that runs through town is right across the street from my house, and there has been a lot of activity the past few weeks.  I’ve seen people from all strata of society headed down to the river with empty bags and coming back up with full ones and visions of either a fine meal or a full wallet dancing in their heads.  There have been cars with license plates from New York and Delaware parked across the street, and folks ranging in age from preschoolers to octogenarians making their way to the riverside.

One of the more unusual pickers I’ve seen was just this morning.  It was early, and I was sitting in my favorite armchair, drinking coffee and watching the rain come down out the window when I saw a middle-aged woman in what looked like pajamas come trundling down the street toward the river access trail.  Given the frequency with which people wear their jammies out and around, I didn’t think a whole lot of it.  About an hour later though, I saw this very same lady walking back up the street, completely drenched, and carrying a very full plastic bag of fiddleheads.  I began to wonder:  What circumstances would compel a woman to pick a full bag of fiddleheads, in her pajamas, in a steady rain, at dawn on a Sunday?

There’s probably a great American novel in the answer to that question.

Once you’ve picked fiddleheads, then you have to clean them, and that’s an ordeal if you ask me.  Good old Matteuccia struthiopteris comes with a brown, paper-like covering, much like certain magazines did back in the day.  (Or so I’m told.)  This covering is very crumbly and hard to get entirely off the fiddlehead.  But get it off you must, from every single one of those hundreds and hundreds of curly green pains in the neck.  Plus, it’s a good idea to check each individual one for rot, bugs, or other such nastiness.  Their tiny, curly nature lends itself to trapping iffy things in nooks and crannies. 

For every hour I’ve spent picking fiddleheads, I’ve probably spent another two cleaning them.  Since my family and I will be eating them ourselves, I take the job pretty seriously and get rid of all the brown stuff and other nasties.  But that doesn’t mean I like it.  On a scale of one-to-filing taxes, cleaning fiddleheads is around an eight.  I shudder to think about the level of commitment to cleaning, or lack thereof, by people who are merely selling them to retailers or restaurateurs.  I hope the patron saint of health inspectors is watching over us all.

Although the words may ring hollow coming from me, the least-willing person on earth to take chances with new foods, but I’d encourage you to give fiddleheads a try if you ever get the opportunity.  You can learn more about them at this link from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.  Maine lobster  and blueberry pie are great, but if you want a true taste of Maine, some steamed fiddleheads with real butter and vinegar alongside a grilled brook trout is a meal like no other.

I just have to try not to think about the fact that both fiddleheads and trout grew in close proximity to my arch-nemesis, the eel.


  1. Sounds like quite a treat, if people will go through all that to have it. Down here the Spring delicacy is crawfish (probably crayfish to you). I will have to try to make it to Maine for fiddlehead season sometime. There are only so many lobster rolls a person can eat in a week.

  2. that sounds lovely.

    i'll pop over presently to have dinner.