Fiddleheads, an early spring delicacy beloved of Mainers, are North American natives. It seems almost incredible that another early spring green – the omnipresent, rugged dandelion – is not. In fact, the dandelion immigrated, carried by chance or possibly by choice, with the English who first settled in New England, and who knew it well both as food and as medicine. English writer and botanical enthusiast John Josselyn visited his brother Henry (an early member of Maine’s government) on Scarborough’s Black Point in the 1630s and again nearly 30 years later. The dandelion, he noted in his 1672 book New-Englands Rarities (sic), had colonized America, one of many plants “such as have sprung up since the English planted and kept cattle in New England.”
Within 150 years, some considered the dandelion flora non grata. An article in The American Farmer described it as “a well-known and most wicked garden weed…I am half afraid to speak of using it as food, lest I should encourage laziness.”
But probably few in Northern New England shared his point of view. Mainers subsisted all winter long on salted, smoked, dried, and pickled – or otherwise preserved – foods. As long winters wore into spring, their cellar stores grew sparse; any remaining roots were “corky,” the potatoes and celeriac sprouted. In a time before greenhouses, refrigeration, safe home-canning and modern transportation guaranteed a year-round supply of greens at the supermarket, these early wild greens – bracing and bitter (in a good way) – must have looked practically miraculous.
And in many ways, they were (and are) – the leaves are packed with iron and vitamins A and C. It’s an old New England custom to take a tonic – a dose of spring greens intendted to invigorate sluggish digestion after the season of heavy winter foods. A 1908 Good Housekeeping recipe for a dainty dandelion salad, made with the tender, pale and mildly bitter leaves plucked from close to the plant’s crown, trumpeted itself as “A splendid tonic for the blood in the spring.”
By 1918, the market for dandelion greens had grown to the point that a standard bushel weight had been set in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont – 12 pounds of greens to the bushel – and local producers were trucking both foraged and cultivated greens to town and city markets. One notable firm, W.S. Wells and Son of Wilton, Maine, was canning both dandelion greens and fiddleheads under the Belle of Maine label; it continued to do so for most of the 20th century, only stopping production just a few years ago. Wells was among the first to cultivate dandelions for the market (the company experimented with cultivating fiddleheads, too, but found it impractical), and the first to can fiddleheads successfully. They distributed most of their fresh and canned greens regionally, but they had a respectable mail order business with snowbirds in Florida and elsewhere who craved a dandelion fix, even from a can. (Today, Wells’ continues to market fresh greens.)
Plain Maine cooks didn’t seem to take to the “splendid tonic” of pale, tender-leaved salads that smacked of European affectations. Favorite combinations for cooked greens here usually included salt pork and vinegar, perhaps a garnish of hard-boiled egg; sometimes just butter, salt and pepper with a dash of vinegar. In his 1944 book “Mainstays of Maine,” Robert P. Tristam Coffin offered up a distinctive Maine recipe for long-boiled green dandelion greens, which he described as the “Yankee-Doodle meat of American manhood.” Coffin instructed cooks that the greens “are to be boiled right up and down for three or four hours” (with a hunk of salt pork, of course) until “all the vitamins and salts go up in steam and out of the kettle.”
The chewy, somewhat bitter greens are tamed by long cooking, but other Maine cooks took a less brutal approach. Marjorie Mosser’s 1939 recipe in her classic “Good Maine Food” recommended washing the dandelion greens three times, then soaking them overnight in cold, salted water with the juice of half a lemon to reduce the bitterness. More mature greens were supposed to be tenderized by a soak, too. A mere hour of simmering “in a small amount of water” – no salt pork – sufficed, and if the cook followed the “Maxims from Maine Kitchens” at the beginning of Mosser’s book, they’d know to never cover a pot of simmering dandelions.
Others tamed the dandelion by adding pared potatoes along with lean-streaked salt pork and a sprinkling of paprika, as Marjorie Standish did in 1968’s Cooking Down East, a collection of recipes from her column that began in this very newspaper in 1948. “Digging dandelion greens in Maine has been going on for generations,” Standish wrote. “Everyone uses a case knife, a flat-type kitchen knife for digging. You can spot the old-timers, they carry bushel baskets.” When Rockland chef Melissa Kelly updated the book four years ago, she made no changes, commenting only, “I absolutely love this recipe!”
We no longer have to dig our own greens, or pick our own fiddleheads, unless we want to. And today, some markets carry fresh dandelion greens year round (although fresh fiddleheads remain a truly seasonal pleasure). Modern cooks are adept at combining the elements of flavor and texture that made the old recipes work, and adapting the elements that didn’t. Dandelions too bitter? Mix with milder greens. Don’t like salt pork? How about a hot bacon dressing? Or a soft-poached egg garnish, instead of hard-boiled and chopped? Spring greens? We’re still writing the history.
Meg Ragland is a culinary historian who is working on her first book, “Boston: A Food Biography.”