Fiddling in the Spring

Had a wonderful time at the well-known local showcase for writers in Westbrook known as Books in the Brook last Saturday. Always a pleasure to talk to an audience that comprises more than my wife and the cat. Thanks to everyone who attended and please support all the local arts you can: what is most important right now is that we work, we love, we support each other, and in the words of my high school writing mentor: Illegitimi non carborundum. Google translate it or take instead the exhortation of my fierce Scottish grandfather: Stick in, people! Stick in!

Which is not where I intended to go at all today . .

I’m unusually busy this month after a couple months of torpor and sloth, so I’m going to cheat a bit and reprint a piece I did for a magazine a number of years ago. No crime is involved except unauthorized harvest, but the piece is certainly regional and seasonal.

. . .

The first few buds in the dwarf apple tree have finally come green.  The forsythia and lilac are starting to flout their dance hall first-of-the-year color, and the two rivers with which I keep company are high and hypothermic with melt.It’s the time of year when fiddleheads show up.

This morning I took a walk around my horseshoe loop of road in southern Maine. Standing roadside in the mouth of a corrugated culvert stuck under the asphalt, was a meager bunch of fiddleheads, a little anemic, but green and growing nevertheless.

Fiddleheads, if you’re so unfortunate as to be unacquainted, are the earliest springtime manifestation of several species of fern. At the first stage, the plant is a tight, circular scroll at the head of a long stalk, gauzed in a sandy husk that dissolves into angel hair as you strip it away. If you try to unfurl the head, you’ll end up with a handful of plump spadelike nodules that, sometime in the warmer days of June and early July, would have thinned and subdivided into the airy lace of the actual fern. The head is edible and doesn’t remain very long in its curled-up state. Once its curve begins to open, fiddlehead season is over.

As with my local specimens, fiddleheads don’t always look that appetizing in situ. Their habitat is likely to be swampy, a slimy bog or a low spot where gray water runs off from a clutch of cottages. But anyone who’s ever eaten them, sautéed in a little butter or steamed with a side dish of crisp-fried trout, knows the balm they offer to the winter-weary soul.

It’s true fiddleheads are the first fresh vegetable you can find after winter subsides, but their main attraction is that they have such a very short season. Fiddleheads, like most delicacies, are better prized and consumed in their season, then forgotten until their time returns.

Delicacy is a misleading term, though. This isn’t a vegetable that’s trendy, like those miniature turnips and carrots. In fact, it should tell you something that the international unit of measure for fiddleheads is the “mess.” They are a mess to harvest, since they live in the low and boggy places, and a mess to clean, with that gossamer husk that flies and settles in every corner of the kitchen.

One of the best gifts I’ve received was from a friend who came visiting one fine April day with fiddleheads freshly cut by her own soft hands and brand new Barlow knife. If ever I have given away fiddleheads, they were probably hacked off close to the ground and wrapped, all hairy and muddy and loose, in old newspapers. The ones she brought me were neatly chopped an inch below the curl, all cleaned and washed and shiny-packed in a plastic Ziploc bag. I could tell she was after something, and such is the power of spring and fiddleheads that she nearly wound up with it.

I could go on, especially about possibilities at the table – salt pork and fiddleheads, corn bread and fiddleheads – but I’m not trying to write a cookbook and I think you should discover them yourself anyway. What struck me as I walked around my road is this: there aren’t many things in this world that are sweeter in their immature state than when fully grown. There is love, mainly, and fiddleheads.

In a world so small that a Russian reactor belches and the rain in your town shows it, where federal officials tell us not to sweat a couple hundred extra picocuries in the milk, we need these fragile beginnings, the seasonal and annual recurrences, to keep us somewhere near honest. Somehow today, my own clock and calendar conspired to remind me that we don’t disrupt our cycles with impunity. I turned back along the horseshoe road, pulled out my knife, and cut myself a mess of fiddleheads. After the smallest of pauses, spring moved on.


About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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3 Responses to Fiddling in the Spring

  1. Gram says:

    Love fiddleheads!

  2. Beautiful post, Dick. You are so right – the value of fiddleheads is both how they taste and what they symbolize.

    I can’t wait to enjoy my first mess of fiddleheads this spring. Soon.

  3. Brian Thiem says:

    Great post, Dick. In the woods on my property in Connecticut was a vast sea of ferns. I recall walking through there in spring and seeing the fiddleheads (I stayed out of there once the ferns matured unless I wanted to pick a dozen ticks off me). Too bad I didn’t know they were edible before I sold the place and moved south.

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