Maine Crime Writer Poisoned; Survives to Tell Tale

My life is fairly straightforward.

I work. I write. I have fun with friends and family. I bike. I hike. I meet nice people while walking the dog.

Vicki Doudera here, happy to report that, for the most part, my days pass pretty smoothly. The fictional lives I create in my books are full of quirks and wrinkles, but my day-to-day journey, thank goodness, is more vanilla than rocky road.

Until yesterday, when I ingested a toxin for lunch.

The funny thing – make that, one of the funny things – is that I watched a NOVA episode last week called Venom: Nature’s Killer, and I got so excited about box jellyfish and many-banded kraits (timid snakes packing neurotoxins so deadly they’re among the most poisonous land species in the world) that I scribbled out two pages of notes. I went to bed with crime scenarios flitting through my head, and the thought that, other than the rare and very shy brown recluse

(a non-native spider occasionally found in Maine) we have little to fear, toxin-wise, in the Pine Tree State.

The second funny thing is that I have been on an “eat lots of veggies” kick, because a friend told me about a new diet she’s following, and I assume that vegetables virtually line the path to good health.

Irony number three is that when I purchased the toxic item (which by now you should know is something green) I thought, “Hey, this would make a good blog post,” never dreaming what kind of a post I’d end up struggling to write, in between bolting to the bathroom.

Here’s your final clue. Ready? The culprit is a seasonal Maine delicacy, something I’ve enjoyed in restaurants but have never – until yesterday – cooked myself. Within thirty minutes of preparing and eating a portion of this mysterious “treat,”  I fell prey to violent intestinal distress that lasted nine or so very long hours.

My nemeses? Fiddleheads.

That’s the nickname for the tightly curled fronds of the ostrich fern, found by the banks of rivers or

streams and foraged by many an enterprising Mainer. Take a look. They look as innocent as the day they pushed up from the spring ground, right?

I had never heard of them until I moved to Maine twenty-seven years ago, although I suspect they are now on the menus of upscale restaurants throughout New England and beyond.

Locally sourced. Rare. Deadly.

Okay, maybe that’s going too far (unless you know something I don’t by the time this is published) but in my opinion fiddleheads are definitely poisonous – at least to those who eat them sautéed in garlic.

The University of Maine’s Bulletin 4198, Facts on Fiddleheads, explains how to identify the tender shoots and mentions “a number of outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads.”

The described symptoms of this foodborne illness were diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and headaches. These symptoms generally occur within 30 minutes to 12 hours after eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads. This foodborne illness typically lasts less than 24 hours, but it was found that some cases could last up to three days.

Three days?

It could be worse, way worse – I know that from my night with NOVA. And yet, as I write this, still suffering the effects from what some call “fiddlehead fever,” I know it will be a long while before I eat another ostrich fern.

And if I do, I can assure you – it will have been boiled nearly to death.

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16 Responses to Maine Crime Writer Poisoned; Survives to Tell Tale

  1. Deanna says:

    Thanks for the warning. Get well soon. Dee

    • I’m up and moving around, Dee…. but still wary!

      • Carole L Esley says:

        Thanks for the information, Vicki. So glad you are getting better. I now am a bit wary and the fresh fiddleheads awaiting my attention later today will be cooked to the max!

        I gather from your article, the potential for poisoning is increased when garlic is used. Hmmmmmmm, guess until I hear from you, I’ll omit the garlic 🙁

      • Carole…. the garlic had nothing to do with it
        It was my too-quick sauteing that was to blame. Boil or stream’em a good 10 minutes– at least!

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Interestng! I’ve eaten fiddleheads .. without any dire (or close to dire) results. But I’ve never cooked them myself. I’ve never heard they could cause such problems. But you can be sure … I’ll be paying close attention next time I’m tempted to eat them again!

  3. John Clark says:

    Your post fired up my librarian curiosity and I found the following post on a website FWIW.
    Five cases of illness associated with consuming fiddleheads — the edible shoots of ostrich ferns — have recently sprouted up in Toronto, according to a health advisory from Toronto Public Health.
    Fiddleheads are believed to carry an unidentified natural toxin that can sicken some eaters unless the food is thoroughly washed and cooked before consumption. After concerns about the mystery toxin first arose in 1994, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending people boil fiddleheads for 15 minutes or steam them for 12 before eating.
    Toronto Public Health did note that it is rare for people to become ill from eating fiddleheads. Those who do become ill may have diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps and headaches usually lasting fewer than 24 hours.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    Goodness! I had no idea. I love fiddleheads, but I’ve never cooked them, only had them in restaurants.

    I’m so glad you’re feeling better. Whew!

  5. MCWriTers says:

    Ah, the titles that this brings to mind. Fiddled to Death? A Green and Ferny Death? Nature’s Revenge.

    You are going to be “dining out” on this topic for years to come.

    What a great post!

    Kate

  6. Patty Kitchen says:

    Hi Vicki,
    Hope you feel better soon! Now I know why my grandmother and mother, boiled fiddleheads with bacon for 30 minutes or more. Mom also blanches them and freezes them, but always cooks them forever! I have been eating them for over agh! 50 years with out the symptoms you describe, thankfully! Look forward to seeing you soon.

    • Oh Patty– if only my grandma had taught me about fiddleheads! She stuck to risotto, polenta, and canolli….

      Feeling better. We are up in Bar Harbor to do MS Bike ride tomorrow. Catch up with you soon !

  7. Susan E. Van Hyning UMO76' says:

    Fiddleheads, love them. At our house on the banks of the Sheepscot in Whitefield, they blanketed the ground. Sorry you ingested a bout of the ‘out of my way I need the loo’s’, but yes ALWAYS cook them fully. Cool em’ and dip in blue cheese dressing, YUM. Drizzle with butter and a bit of parmesan, DOUBLE YUM. Realize they may have lost their appeal for you but , at least let Darby enjoy them!

  8. Brenda says:

    Wow! I thought I was up on this stuff, but I didn’t know about fiddleheads. Glad you are doing okay now! At least being a writer you will have lots of uses for this.

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