Discretion is said to be the better part of valor, but when do we take it too far? While out walking the other day I found a nice patch of fiddlheads—the new spring growth of ferns, named for their distinctly violin scroll shape. Mature fern fronds are toxic, but the young emerging shoots of a few particular species are succulent and delicious, their taste often described as a cross between asparagus and artichoke. High-end restaurants charge boocoo for this delicacy of spring.
The fiddleheads were unfurling amid a tangle of devil's club and salmonberry along a boggy section of trail. The proper way to forage a fiddlehead patch is to scout the fully leafed-out ferns in the summer or fall when they're easier to identify, then return the following spring to harvest a small portion of the new growth. You take two or three fiddleheads per cluster, never more than 40 percent of the total. Unlike many other plants, ferns don't grow back once picked.
I was in a quandry. These delicate green beauties, curled up and tender in their papery sheaths, sure looked tasty. But I couldn't ID them. There's one particular species of fern, bracken, which has been proven to have carcinogenic properties. It causes intestinal cancer in mice, and has been implicated in higher rates of stomach cancer where humans traditionally eat it. That said, bracken fern is considered a delicacy in Japan and has been a staple of Native Americans' diets for millennia. Many experienced foragers warn against it just the same.
I picked a bunch anyway. Back at home I tried cleaning a few. The brown papery sheath didn't come off as easily as other fiddleheads I'd eaten in the past. These definitely weren't the sought-after fiddleheads of the ostrich fern. Other choice varieties include the lady fern and cinnamon fern.
What to do? I emailed my findings to the ForageAhead Yahoo group. Recently we'd had a thread about the carcinogens in bracken fern. I quoted my wife Marty, who's normally cautious about food but had her sights set on these toothsome-looking greens: "Everything gives you cancer these days." A fellow named Green Deane, proprietor of the Eat the Weeds web site, wrote back:
Everything causes cancer, and the truth is we all get cancer every day. Our immune system just takes care of it. Perhaps I am getting cranky but I would trust the nutrition in a fiddlehead before the advice of a nutritionist about the fiddlehead. When it comes to food, our ancestors got along very well without the advice of nutritionists, doctors or researchers. They ate successfully for hundreds of thousands of years, certainly tens of thousands of years. I think a non-calorie sweetener is a far greater threat to your life than a fern. Personally, my rule is if my great grandmother would not recognize it as food I don't eat it (coco-puffs, non-dairy creamer, carbonated cheese food, margarine, et cetera). And stay away from doctors, they make you sick.
Cranky or not, Deane raises some good points. On the other hand, I'm a fan of science and empiricism (if not corporate nutritionism).
So it's settled. I've decided to try them. Just a few. Maybe one. If this is my last post, you'll know why. I also plan to do a little research at the library to see if I can narrow down the list of possible species. Eating a new species from the wild is always unnerving, particularly in the plant and fungal kingdoms. Our ancestors sacrificed a lot of lives in the long lab test of edibility. I don't plan to join the errors in the annals of trial-and-error, but I do want to honor their courage—only on a small, hopefully not so life-threatening scale.
This whole imbroglio reminds me of related discussions going on lately in mycophagist circles, of which more tomorrow.