I was cleaning fiddleheads the other night in the kitchen, enjoying the slow, methodical process of dusting off the parchment thin skins that cover the unfurled heads. I wasn’t in a hurry, so my mind rested on the task and I began to remember the enjoyment of our picking expedition and piggyback across the brook.
My thoughts drifted back to the gurgling of the rushing water, the sun-splashed forest floor, the tangles of bare alder branches, piles of dead grass washed up against rotting logs in the early spring rushets. I remembered the smell of wet earth and the cushioned softness underfoot of walking on new moss and last season’s wet leaves. I recognized some of the plants beginning to grow underfoot, even though I couldn't put a name to them.
I knew these fiddleheads would taste better, simply because I gathered them myself. Because the enjoyment of eating them would be connected to my memory of how and where they grew.
Did you know that you should never pick more than three from a cluster, so as not to destroy the strength of the plant? That’s why the best and fattest fiddleheads are far away from easy access roads. I don’t know when I learned this – or when it somehow registered which ferns were fiddlehead ferns and which ones weren’t. There are often only subtle differences, but these you can’t learn from a book. It requires touching and seeing, perhaps even making a mistake or two. Too often, we fail to appreciate where our food comes from or how it grows.
A local gardener told me about something that happened when she was selling her produce at a farmer's market. Her table was overflowing with fresh green and wax beans, carrots and peas. A young couple approached and the girl picked up a pea pod, turning it over and over in her fingers. She then asked, “What’s this?” When the gardener told her there were peas inside, she just looked at her blankly. She didn't understand. Her peas came frozen in a bag.
Then there was the young cashier ringing through my groceries. He picked up a turnip, rolled it over, then looked at me. “It’s a turnip,” I offered. “No kidding,” he said, "that's what they look like."
How sad is that?