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I swear that the first greens of the spring come like a green sigh of relief. After damn near five months of winter, they release like the forest has been holding its breath all that time. Some folks aren’t a fan. They haven’t gone out to find them (and then failed).
Walking past the produce section with my girlfriend is like walking through the candy aisle with an eight-year-old. There’s a lot of sleeve-tugging, can-we-please-get-these’s, and longing stares. Sometimes I haven’t the foggiest what to do with them, but the dewy displays of greens and tubers, alliums, and exotics don’t care. They lounge, knowing that you’ve seen them but playing coy.
You walk towards the oranges because Christ sake’s you need a little Vitamin C, but the hiss of the sprayers pulls you back in. As if the dirty oranges, veined greens, and devilish reds weren’t enough, those vegetable pimps at Wegmans turn the spritzers on and it’s all over. Those ramps that you knew where too-much-per-pound to even consider turn from coquettish to full-on pornographic. The fiddleheads shrink wrapped onto some horrid mint green Styrofoam grow hotter than your ex at last call. Is it guilty? Duh. Is it worth it? Hell if I knew.
Those first of the season green goods are about as expensive as they are fleeting. You get maaaayyyybbbeee three weeks if you’re lucky. Otherwise, they’re trucking that shit in from Canada. Why are fiddleheads $20 dollars a pound? Why is a pound of ramps worth more than my copay at the dentist? I had no idea. I looked it up. Aside from the fact that you had to know where to get them, nobody else did either. Furtive forest knowledge can’t be that hard to come by, right? Right? RIGHT?
Smash cut to my dumbass hunched over in the woods pockets full of Shaw’s shopping bags. It’s the beginning of May at my grandparents’. There’s still snow on the ground. It’s New Hampshire, after all. The water’s too high and too cold for fish, so it’s time to look for more slippery sorts. It’s time to find something so hard to find, and thus expensive, that they make avocados look like apples.
Time to set out into the woods in a pair of crappy black Nike’s. “Not in those you don’t,” says my grandmother. Four hours later post Walmart-boot-run and a theretofore unknown little league game, I’m off and away.
It’s hard to get an appreciation of the place you grew up in without leaving it. There’s something about the ride back from college, just crossing the Vermont border when the mountains come into view against a sweeping right turn. Twenty plus Green Mountain revelations later plus one job in a bougie-ass kitchen, I start to realize that I might live somewhere special. A thesis about kebabs and 6ish books about the racial, cultural, and personal implications and importance of food, agriculture, and place in the South later, I’m converted. Then the search began for my native New England.
Where do fiddleheads turn from Sunday dinner sufferings to haute cuisine darlings? Where do wild leeks dress with secrets and dollar bills where they were once the province of folks described euphemistically as “backwoods?” (Like my family!)
The short answer is, I don’t know. I haven’t found any new age woodland hermits to guide my curiosity into the lesser known places. All I have is a wrinkled shopping bag, some garden shears, and a vague mental imprint of what fiddleheads look like. For those of you who don’t know what fiddleheads are… see the below picture.
They’re baby ferns, and they’re a rite for New Englanders. When spring comes, so do the fiddleheads, quite literally unfurling from underneath last year’s leaves. They’re covered in a brown papery sheath that, as fate would have it, are the same color as the leaves from whence they came! They’re needles in a leaves-stack. Until they’re not.
As my primary picking spot, my usual suspect, my sandy Connecticut River bank was covered in three feet of White Mountain snowmelt, I expected to be S.O.L. Luckily for me, fiddleheads grow everywhere. Not really, but they’re frequent enough that I’ve learned their expense comes not from knowing where they grow.
Some ferns are poisonous! Some look just like the edible fiddleheads! They’ll kill you dead! Or at least give you a serious case of the runs! Do not pick fiddleheads unless you are absolutely certain you have the correct species and don’t pick them late or they can also be very bad for you. Seriously, just like picking mushrooms, fiddleheads must be treated with the utmost care and caution.
I might've found like five because it's still just coming out of winter up there. New Hampshire’s weather doesn’t really make sense. Aside from the 231 mph winds and shit, this little state exists in two different seasons pretty much all the time. North of the mountains, it’s last season. Until it’s winter. Then it’s a month ahead of the curve.
Anywho, when fiddleheads are barely out of the ground up north, they’re full-bore where I live. A few grandparent hugs and a two-hour drive later, I’m cajoling my mom into the woods with me. She had seen some of the exact, got-damn fiddleheads I’d been looking for while driving home from getting mulch. I’d done research. I’d scouted. I’d spent hours in tick-infested woods. She found them through sheer luck.
Such is life.
That being said, I forced her to take me exactly where she found them, and we picked like five pounds of them. It was really easy as soon as you know what you’re looking for. When I went back four days later, there were almost none left. The window’s a week tops if you want ‘em, so good luck next year, I guess. Happy huntin’.
In Conclusion... Violet Sandwiches
There were no ramps to be found anywhere. If there were I would have paid off my car. And probably bought a new phone. Instead, I spent four days cleaning fiddleheads. Honestly, they’re worth buying instead of picking for almost everyone. If you’re nuts and want to study native foodways, do what I did (or don’t, seriously). Instead of ramps, I had a backyard full of violets. Make sandwiches with violets, they taste like cucumbers, except they’re prettier. Now go eat something good.