Freshets and Fiddleheads

Some recipes did not make it into My Mother’s Cookbooks… Some foods just did not require written recipes, it is almost as if Mum had them in her DNA. Seasonal specialties are a case in point… is there a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey stuffing? No, and not one for Easter Ham and Scalloped potatoes either.

So it is not surprising that our traditional Spring feast is also missing from the recipes…

The Miramichi river1 figures large in the lives, traditions and foods associated with the region. From early days families relied upon the river and its tributaries’ natural bounty, the plants, fish, migratory birds and wild life which made the rivers and valleys home. The river also figured large in transportation, domestic and industrial. It is entirely understandable that people’s lives assumed a rhythm based upon the river and it’s seasons.

A trapper of the Miramichi c. 1870, Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Heritage Family website

Winter in central New Brunswick 150 years ago was a period of intense industry in the lumber woods. Characterized by the protracted absence of men, who spent weeks and months in lumber camps, cutting timber. Cut timber would await ‘the break up’, and ‘the freshet’2. Rising water levels from the Spring melt were used to ‘drive’ the timber to market. The break up ended months of hard work in isolation, it reunited families, and signaled return of the river’s bounty.

Spring melt represented opportunity and anticipation. The movement of ice, and rising water levels generates energy, excitement and social engagement as people assemble on riverbanks and bridges to watch even today. One might assume the activity and assembled community watching the break up of ice, is an expression of stress or concern about flooding and its damaging effects but no… it is a traditional celebration of sorts, laughter filling the air as hopes and plans for the season are discussed and shared. Soon the rising water will drop, the river retreating to its summer course, leaving behind river interval land3 refreshed and burgeoning with life.

Camp and Lumber men c.1890 Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage Family website

For women like Sarah Ann Munro Walls (1803-~1871) providing nutritious and tasty food for her family would include using the bounty of the river to best advantage. After a long and difficult winter, where her offerings depended heavily on dried beans, peas, salted, dried, smoked fish and meat, she would have welcomed the promise offered by the river’s freshet.

Spring smelt fishing on the Miramichi river c1890, Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage Photos

For Sarah and her family the river’s Spring harvest probably began with Fiddlehead4 greens, nutritious and delicious the little green is available only during a short period, which is dictated by the river. Fiddleheads, immature and unfurled fern fronds have provided a source of essential vitamins and nutrients to people of the region for thousands of years. European settlers learned quickly to copy First Nation peoples habit of harvesting the green and incorporating it in to their Spring diet.

Families would gather on the banks of the river, bogans5, and islands by boat and on foot as they made their way to ‘best’ picking areas, where the young plants lay hidden in the previous summer’s dead vegetation. A quick snap, the Fiddlehead lifted free, leaving plant roots undisturbed.

Once baskets were filled they were taken to the river’s edge for washing and cleaning. Cleaning Fiddleheads, which has an inedible rust coloured skin, is an art in its self. Dipping the basket, swirling and agitating to remove the skin. Carefully using the river’s current to take away the skins, without loosing the greens, is a skill acquired through long practice.

So, Fiddleheads feature large in our family’s Spring Feast… but the river’s contribution to the feast doesn’t end there…fish, Spring fish are featured too. Schools of migrating fish arrive, Smelt, Gaspereau, American Shad and Spring Salmon arrive just in time for the Spring feast.

The exact content of a Spring feast is dependent on tradition, personal choice and availability, but it features Fiddleheads and fish, usually accompanied by potatoes and other leftover root vegetables. Here is My Mother’s Cookbooks version…

A Miramichi Spring Feast recipe

Ingredients Recommended Ingredients
Fresh 3-4 lb American Shad Halibut steak about 2 lbs
Stuffing:
2 cups of fresh bread crumbs
1 medium onion diced
1/2 c diced celery
1/2 finely diced carrot
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 tsp dried summer savory 1 tsp dried tarragon
Fiddleheads***:
3-4 pounds to serve four

Method:
1. Preheat oven to 375 degree F
2. Clean and wash the fish, removing scales and head
2. Saute veggies in butter add herbs and bread, let cool before stuffing the fish.
3. Wrap fish in two layers of foil wrap and place on baking sheet, Bake 45 minutes or until the flesh flakes easily from the bones.
4. Wash and trim cleaned Fiddleheads thoroughly with potable water. *** use only greens harvested by experienced Fiddlehead harvesters, non edible ferns present a serious health risk if consumed.
5. Steam until tender, serve with vinegar or lemon, butter, salt and pepper.

Sarah Ann Munro Walls

Sarah Ann Munro Walls was born Sept 1803, forth in a family of eleven born to Nancy Mitchell Munro and John Munro in Blissfield, New Brunswick. Sarah’s grandparents were New England planters who settled in the colony prior to the Revolutionary War. Sarah and her sister Suzannah(Susan) were married on the same day 2 July 1818, Sarah Ann married James John Walls (Wells) son of James Walls and Charlotte Brown. Susan married John Thomas Bamford, a native of Maine who had arrived in Northumberland county seeking business opportunities in the timber industry.

Sarah and James settled down river at what became Blackville on the south side of the Southwest Branch of the Miramichi River, possibly on one of James’ father’s properties. James and Sarah welcomed their first son John, a few months after their marriage in 1818.

By October of 1825, Sarah just 21 years old was mother of 3 children under 6 years of age. The summer and fall had been extremely dry and hot, at first people thought the black clouds were a harbinger of welcomed rain on the late October afternoon. It wasn’t, it was fire, great rushing walls of flame and heat driving everything from its path. It appears James and Sarah’s property did not experience a direct hit, but her sister Susan Munro Bamford’s family were not so lucky.

At a location on the south side the the Southwest branch of the Miramichi near Doaktown about 25 feet from shore is a rock know locally as Bamford Rock. It is said the Bamford family sought its safety during a night of fire horror, no doubt sharing it with human and beast alike.

The Great Miramichi fire destroyed everything in its path, although the official fatality count was 160 souls the fire’s true toll could well number in to the thousands since many woodsmen were simply undocumented and unknown. The fire destroyed a large swath of the province consuming more than 16,000 sq kilometers, houses and farms leaving the survivors vulnerable to falling temperatures and winter suddenly fast approaching. One can imagine that those fortunate enough not loose life and property would not have been untouched. Food and shelter shared as the entire community struggled to survive, rebuild and thrive.

James success as a farmer appears to have included land dealings, it is likely he also worked in the local mills, possibly in one of those owned by his wife’s brothers in law, Bamford and Mersereau.

In April of 1850 James died, the 1851 census sees Sarah 48 years old heading a household containing 9 of her children and two grandchildren. This pattern continued until Sarah’s death sometime after 1871. Sarah and James raised a large family many of whom continued to live in the Miramichi. My Mother Evelyn Walls Lyons descended from two of Sarah and James’ sons, John and Charles.

Footnotes:
1. The Miramichi River referred to in this piece relates to the Miramichi River system, including its head waters, tributaries and estuary.
2. Freshet: the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow.
3. Interval land refers to low lying land surrounding the river, the floodplain. Interval land although unreliable for homes and buildings, contains rich soil deposited by the annual run off, becoming valuable pasture and crop land.
4. Fiddleheads: young edible cinnamon and or ostrich ferns.
5. Bogan a body of still water related to the river, which is not part of the river channel. Bogans are filled with water at periods during the year such as during Spring freshet but may dry completely or remain bog like during dry periods.

Resources:

  1. MacEachern, Allan. “The Miramichi Fire”. 2020 McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal PQ
  2. “Doaktown Village Time line” http://www.discoverdoaktown.com/our-heritage/village-timeline/
Salmon fishing on the Northwest Miramichi c.1890 – Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage Family website.

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