Near the end of the vegetable section, a man stood between me and my target, rocking back and forth, moderating a debate between himself and the brassicas. As I approached, he stepped backward and let me in. I picked a large handful of green pinwheels and put them into a thin plastic bag. “Excuse me—what are they?”
“They’re fiddleheads,” I said. The signs at the end of the vegetable rack were clustered together, but I’d have thought that anyone could figure it out if they had the slightest gift with process-of-elimination problem solving. Maybe not, though. Broccoli looks like broccoli, green beans look like green beans, but fiddleheads look straight out of Doctor Seuss or Sarah Hennessey’s Etsy store: tightly furled ferns that look adorable, but not edible. If you were out on a hike and you saw them, you wouldn’t think they were food, but you’d play with them, and who could blame you? You watched time-lapse video of plant life cycles when you were a kid, and looking at a fiddlehead is like looking at time suspended. The fronds have to be cut before they unfurl into ferns, or else they’re no good for eating.
“What do they taste like?” He seemed genuinely curious.
“I guess the closest thing is asparagus.” I stopped myself from adding and spring, and sunshine, and bouncy grass under your bare feet. I’m the kind of person who wants to eat things that taste like spring and sunshine and bouncy grass, but some people just won’t trust you if you talk that way. “They’re good. You should try them.”
“How do you cook ‘em?” He was older than me, and a little tired, but it looked like “asparagus” was the magic word.
“Brush off the brown bits, that papery stuff? As much as you can. Give them a good wash and then steam them for about ten or twelve minutes. Then you just do what you like for your asparagus. I finish them off in olive oil and garlic, with a little bit of lemon juice at the end.”
I tied up my fiddleheads and headed for the bakery, but then turned on my heel. He was still looking askance at the box of mysterious greens. “They aren’t around all year, so if you’re even curious, now’s the time.” And if he didn’t take a small handful after that, well… some people can see the bouncy grass in me no matter how I try to keep it in.
Sunday dinner was salmon with pimentón and thyme on a bed of spinach, a side of Rose Finn fingerlings, and the spiral green fiddleheads, prepared exactly the way I’d instructed the curious stranger. They do taste kind of like asparagus, nothing that would upset anyone with a healthy appreciation for green vegetables. And god they are fun. We picked the extras from the serving dish and let them unreel into our upturned mouths at the table. (We play with our food, but only ‘cause you’re not watching.) It’s a little late for fiddleheads this year, but since spring barely graced us with her presence, summer is carrying her sister’s load as well. Around here, we take what sunshine we can get, whether it comes gently or with a little attitude or fashionably late.