Can fiddleheads make you sick?

There have been reports of people experiencing food poisoning after eating them, so public health and some food experts recommend boiling them for 10 minutes before eating them.

“The CDC has never identified a toxin related to fiddlehead consumption,” said Kathy Savoie, extension educator with the University of Maine. “So the recommendation about the 10-minute boil is more about the secondary contamination from eating fiddleheads that may be in a river that has flooded and may have contaminants from wastewater treatment or runoff from agricultural fields.”

Last year, a number of people got sick from eating undercooked or raw fiddleheads, Savoie said.

The idea of boiling fiddleheads for 10 minutes makes a chef’s skin crawl. They argue that boiling for that long will make them mushy and inedible, and that as long as they clean and prepare the fiddleheads properly, diners have nothing to worry about.

Jeffrey Savage, executive chef at On the Marsh Bistro in Kennebunk, ranks the 10-minute boil with the current obsession with hand sanitizers.

“If I go through my entire life worrying about every little thing being 100 percent cooked and not having any possibility of pathogens,” he said, “I’m going to miss out on a lot of experience of life — what it tastes like to have something cooked correctly so it’s not dried out and it’s not turned to mush because you cooked product to death and you’ve lost all flavor and nutrition.”

David Fuller, a fiddlehead researcher at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Farmington, says some of the reported illnesses from fiddleheads may have been caused by people picking the wrong fern. The ostrich fern is the one to look for, and it is distinguished by its brown paper covering and a deep, U-shaped groove on the inside of the stem.

“I’ve had fiddleheads that were on a brick oven pizza,” Fuller said. “Well, the interior temperature was 800 degrees. It’s a tough one to say. We straight across the board say (boil for) 10 minutes. I’ve had the symptoms of undercooked fiddleheads, and I was sick for three days. I was a 20-year-old college student. I stir-fried them. They were al dente. And I had severe food poisoning symptoms.

“We don’t want to give them a bad name, but at the same time, they are a wild plant that may have been submerged by riverwater.”

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