The Zen of Fiddleheads | First Person

For a child of the Maine wilderness, the humble fiddlehead nourishes memories and a sense of place.

By Yankee Magazine

May 02 2022


The Zen of Fiddleheads

Photo Credit : Karl Blossfeldt, Purchased with the support of the Paul Huf Fonds/Rijksmuseum Fonds, Baker McKenzie and the Rijksmuseum Fonds
The Zen of Fiddleheads
Photo Credit : Karl Blossfeldt, Purchased with the support of the Paul Huf Fonds/Rijksmuseum Fonds, Baker McKenzie and the Rijksmuseum Fonds

ByCathie Pelletier

For three or four weeks each spring, a small green miracle appears along New England’s shady riverbanks, brooks, and damp marshes. In its first few days of life, before it has time to unfurl into the ostrich fern it really is, it looks like the scroll on the tip of a fiddle. Botanists call it Matteuccia struthiopteris, but we northern Mainers know it as the humble fiddlehead. It is born swaddled in a brown papery chaff carried over from the previous autumn. With southern Maine being so tourist-centric in the summers, fancy recipes using fiddleheads have made their way into print over the years. There are quiches and omelets, Gruyère tarts and sauces, saffron soups and edamame salads. Some cookbooks have fiddleheads in league with quenelles de brochet or lemon-rosemary risottos. We locals are often saddened to see photographs of our beloved fern cuddled up to a red lobster, or lounging next to spot prawns and glazed shrimp.

We are rivers and lakes people this far north. The fiddlehead looks best when lying next to brook trout and biscuits. So ignore those dishes that use fancy words. Take it from a purist who was raised with fiddleheads growing a stone’s throw from the kitchen stove. You pick them in the spring when they are still unfurled, two or three inches high. Otherwise, within a month, the fronds will be a yard tall and swaying in the breeze like can-can dancers. I usually take a pan or a basket. But if I happen upon some while walking, I just remove my jacket and fill the inside. We never use the word “harvest.” We say, “I picked a mess of fiddleheads today.” Rinse away the chaff and any dirt and boil them with potatoes. Some people throw in a chunk of salt pork. When they are cooked, cover them in butter (unless you’re a vegan like me) and sprinkle them with salt. But think of the riverbanks and brooks and marshes as you eat. Savor the smell of moist earth.

During the years I was growing up in Allagash, my brother Vernon was the one who picked fiddleheads for the family. The rest of us weren’t interested, or we couldn’t tolerate the blackflies. Vernon seemed oblivious to them as they swarmed around his head. Many of you know the blackfly, from the family Simuliidae. They prefer those same peaty areas where fiddleheads thrive. The female feeds on the blood of mammals, including humans, for the protein she needs to lay her eggs. Thoreau was right when he wrote in The Maine Woods that blackflies are “more formidable than wolves to the white man.” This was because Joe Polis, his Penobscot guide, wasn’t deterred in the least by them. Vernon was our family’s Joe Polis for many years when it came to picking fiddleheads.

I was 23 when I left Maine and moved to the South, away from those pesky northern blackflies. That next spring, come fiddlehead season, I received a box from my mother. Inside was a freezer bag stuffed with fresh fiddleheads, all nicely cleaned. It became a yearly ritual. Her note would say something like, “Vernon’s been picking fiddleheads.” Or, “I put in a jar of mustard pickles since there was room in the box.” When my niece moved to Tennessee some years later, she also began getting a box each spring. When mine arrived, I’d call her to ask, “Did you get your fiddleheads yet?”

I wonder how many pots of fiddleheads and potatoes Mama cooked for our family over the years. I wonder how many jars she canned for the long winters. I came back to be with her so she could die at home, in this house where she gave birth to me. We buried her in the spring of 2001, just as the first fiddlehead nubs were pushing up from the earth. She was first to go into the family graveyard, near the riverbank where wild chokecherries grow. Afterward, still stunned from our loss, Vernon said he was going for a canoe ride. “Do you want to come?” he asked. “We can pick some fiddleheads.” He brought with him four plastic pails that he threw into the canoe. I sat in the bow as we motored upriver. Ducks scattered ahead of us and deer watched from the shorelines. Near a cluster of hazelnut bushes growing on the riverbank, my brother pointed out an indentation. “There used to be a homestead there once,” he said. “The old Casey place. It’s been gone for years.”

At Aegan Island, where grass grows tall on soil that is always moist and shady in the spring, Vernon pulled the canoe to shore. “This is my best spot for fiddleheads,” he said, as if it were a secret that could only be shared on such an important day in our lives. We picked yards apart, saying nothing as we leaned over our pails, hearing only the river and the wind. Once, when I stood to shoo blackflies and take a drink of water, I heard him say, “There’s an eagle.” As I looked to the corner of sky where he had pointed, to the magnificent wingspan and solid white head, I knew then that nature would save me. And that I would pick fiddleheads for the rest of my life.

On our way home, we rode away from a setting sun with full pails of fiddleheads to be given in “messes” to family and friends. The canoe followed channels in the river well-known to our ancestors, those first settlers of Allagash. Our tiny places on earth belong to us for such a short time, I thought, as we again passed the spot where the old Casey place once stood. The ache I felt was in knowing that I’d never again get fiddleheads in the mail from my mother. It was just one small marker of the many ways I would miss her.

Later that night, suitcase packed for my return to Tennessee, I went down to the basement where Mama had kept so many treasures. That cellar had been dug by my father with a team of horses when he built the house in 1948. There was the lantern Mama dusted off and filled with kerosene each time our electricity went out. A yellow Post-it with her handwriting clung to the handle. “Lantern works fine,” the note told anyone who might need to know, in case she wasn’t there. Strings of Christmas lights hung from nails along the wall, their bulbs remembering the glisten and sparkle of yuletides past. She had always found nooks and crannies in that basement to hide Christmas presents where the best little detectives could never find them. Lined up neatly on a wooden shelf were a dozen Mason jars filled with canned goods. A few held the mustard pickles that I loved. Others had beets and yellow beans grown in her last garden, as well as cranberry jam, made from berries that still grow along our fields and roadsides. But on a bottom shelf, dust coating the lid, was the last jar of fiddleheads.

The following spring, and a year after losing my mother, I was sweeping my patio in Tennessee when a UPS truck rolled up to my door. I knew instantly what was in the box the driver carried as he came up the walk. After all, it was springtime in northern Maine and the riverbank near the old Casey place would be moist and shady. On the return label was my brother’s name and address. Inside, pinned to a freezer bag of fresh fiddleheads, was a note. “You’ll have to clean them yourself. I’m not Mama.”

A decade after my mother died, I came home to be with my aging father. I packed my life into boxes and moved with my husband back to Allagash, to the family homestead, to this house built on memory. These days, reacquainted with the river, I prefer to pick fiddleheads alone. You can smell the past at times like that, the earth alive again from winter. The calls of yellow-breasted chats and song sparrows echo along the banks, and from the hardwood ridge the pileated woodpecker. Trilliums and trout lilies are up, and the first marsh marigolds are eager yellow buds. Sensing my respiration, the blackflies surround me by the hundreds. Swarms of them orbit my head and spatter my white shirt. I no longer notice them. I breathe slowly to expel as little carbon dioxide as I can. As if meditating, I concentrate on the miracle of the ostrich fern, on the miracle of families, on the miracle of life and death that will unfurl, perpetually, for each generation. It’s a lesson I learned late in my life, thanks to the Zen of fiddleheads.

Excerpted from Breaking Bread: Essays from New England on Food, Hunger, and Family. Selected and edited by Debra Spark and Deborah Joy Covey. Published May 24, 2022, by Beacon Press. Author proceeds will benefit Blue Angel, a Maine nonprofit to feed families in need; for information, go to