For the past few weeks, the only surviving snow in the woods was the undulating, hard-packed ice ribbons snaking down the middle of the woodland trails.
All winter, skis and snowshoes have packed the snow down hard along the track. Finally, the snow-ice trails have been (on some days, reluctantly) melting, narrowing, disappearing.
And tufts of snow-compressed grasses, gradually exposed, day by day at the edges of the slow-melt, warmed where the early sun hits the unshadowed parts of the trails, have begun to perk up, push up, lift up. Selkie the Black Lab goes bonkers over these earliest bits of spring. I believe she can smell greenness as it tunnels upward before it even peeks from below the duff.
Sharon and I laugh, speculate that she may be motivated by a recessive vegetarian gene, for she loves carrots, sneaks tomatoes and raspberries off their vines in late summer, crunches up autumn apple drops, and in spring noshes on that one certain type of grass that she prefers and recognizes by its scent but which looks to us for all the world like all other grasses she turns her nose up at.
By the time the ice ribbons have dwindled into mud, and her dog-grass has proliferated, she’ll lag behind on our walks, nibbling entirely too much of the fresh newness of it all, and then have to pause, her stomach rolling, and huck and barf. This happens less and less, though, as she realizes that the grass has eventually become plentiful, more than enough. Eventually, a taste or two each morning prove sufficient.
As winter dwindles into spring every year, we too, Sharon and I, crave fresh greenness, perhaps not with the same nose-to-the-ground avidity as the dog.
Spinach and salad greens in plastic bags from local organic farm greenhouses convert to salads in our kitchen. Tender spikes of chive, always our own earliest crop, rise in our front yard flower garden and begin to appear, minced, on our breakfast omelets or home-fries, or on an evening chowder. Dandelion greens begin to radiate around their root vortex, block the sun from the slower shoots of grass. There are those who dig, cook, and eat these greens with the same enthusiasm that others farther south eat another green spring treasure, ramps, aka wild leeks. We pass on both. But then the first asparagus spears emerge, point men for an arising army of lances. Next, fiddlehead ferns curl up out of humid spots in the woods and, blanched and then sautéed with a bit of garlic and olive oil, and spritzed with lemon juice, fetch up on the table.
For breakfast from now on, no more gray porridge. The double boiler we use all winter to cook our daily oatmeal gets re-purposed now, used for making hollandaise sauce for supper-time asparagus. One of these nights we’ll steam too much asparagus and roll the leftover spears up with a small handful of crumbled feta cheese and minced ham in an omelet the next morning. Weekends we’re more likely to spoon dollops of cornmeal batter onto the cast iron griddle that’s greased and nearly smoking hot. We infuse the batter with chopped chives, minced tips of green scallion, finely chopped green pepper, and a pinch of cayenne. With a splash of new maple syrup, this mix will give us spicy, colorful spring cornmeal pancakes.
But about that green bell pepper: bell peppers in many colorful varieties seem plentiful year round nowadays, the green ones we’ve known forever, and now red, yellow, orange, purple, and even parti-colored varieties of bells as well. If you’re old enough to remember when bell peppers were by definition green, strictly seasonal, a lot smaller and a lot more irregular in shape and texture, you probably also remember that they tasted a lot better fifty or so years back. Back before they were hybridized, tinkered with, and made beautiful to look at but relatively tasteless to eat. The big, generally uniformly shaped peppers so abundant at the supermarket got named “bell” because someone thought they were bell-shaped. Think cow bells.
A digression on the word “pepper”
In pre-Columbus Europe, “pepper” meant those tiny round black seeds that we grind in pepper mills and sprinkle on our eggs mornings and our steak at night. In pre-refrigerated Europe, zingy spices were used as preservatives and masks for the off-taste of food on the edge of spoilage (which was generally the case). Hence the urgency of the Spice Trade shipping to and from the East Indies.
So when folks in Europe first tasted the ah-HOO-ah! zing of capiscum in the fruits (yes, botanically fruits) that Columbus took home from San Salvador in the Bahamas in 1493, folks in Spain thought the plants must also be related to those little black zingy East Indian peppercorns – our table partner of salt, and named them peppers. Christopher Columbus’s West Indian peppers came in several sizes, colors, and degrees of hotness.
Spanish, by the way, makes a very helpful distinction between calor (temperature heat) and its cousin word caliente (the adjective for hot temperature) on the one hand, and, on the other hand picante (piquant hot, as in Tabasco sauce).
As for the name, “pepper,” we’d be a lot more linguistically and culturally accurate if, all these years, we’d been using the native Central American word for these “fruits”: chili. The bell pepper variety of these American peppers, that most of us take for the “normal” pepper, is actually abnormal: the bell pepper alone among chilis has a genetic anomaly; it doesn’t produce the capiscum that characterizes almost every other variant of the chili/pepper. Never hot.
Digressing even further, we also see in market, and many of us buy and cook and eat the longer, skinnier, paler green Italian peppers, jalapenos, anchos, and poblanos (though most of us not the tiny red ones from Vietnam and Thailand or the smoke-comes-out-your-ears Central American habañeros). All this choice, and just among peppers, at the larger chain supermarkets! As the Italian chef Lidia Matticchio Bastianich says on TV, “Che abbondanza!”
But if, by the way, you’re as frustrated as we are with the blandness of bell peppers of any color, roast them. Put them on a baking sheet in a very hot oven until they blacken a little and blister (or if you have the patience you can rotate them on a skewer over the flame on your stove). Then wrap them in a brown paper bag for a few minutes while they cool and the skin loosens even further from the flesh. Peel them (and as with all peppers, dump the seeds and white inner ribs which, by the way, are where, in hot peppers, the capiscum gland is located). The flesh of even our disappointing modern bell peppers, like caraway or sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts, or the Indian spices coriander and cumin, has oils that, roasted a little or browned in a dry frying pan, release significantly more flavor.
But to return to the green world: It is the greenness of spring and early summer that revitalizes us. The late C. L. Barber, Harvard Professor of English, wrote in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies of the uproarious, celebratory, and romantic nature of the green world of gardens and woods in which, in earlier centuries (absent heated greenhouses, electronic entertainment and mechanical transport), the comfort of a softened landscape, the warmth and floral scent of spring and summer air, and the real visceral, and imagined erotic, powers of herbs and greens, all conspired to create a greater appreciation of the greening of the natural world, of the greening of the human diet, and the corresponding uplifting of human biological and emotional health. That maypole that country girls with flowers in their hair danced around, weaving it with ribbons, represented just what you suspect it did.
Of course, we can be grateful that we do, nowadays, have such greenhouses and mechanical transport, and the pioneering genius of Clarence Birdseye’s frozen food industry that extend our pleasure in green foodstuffs to a significant degree year round: peas anytime and no shelling; kiwi fruits that originated in New Zealand; artichokes from the Mediterranean region and now also from Argentina, South Africa, and, in summer from California; Bok Choy and Napa Cabbage originally from southern China; green beans from Central America; okra, limes, avocados . . .
Surely, though, the best thing is our local spring’s first greens – their freshness, the light brightness of their color, their absence of waxes, coatings, preservatives, freezer-frost; and a taste and smell and promise of new life.
Bill Biddle is a retired teacher who worked at Northeastern University and Harvard. After moving to Vermont with his wife, artist Sharon Kenney Biddle, he co-led the Wilderness Program at St. Johnsbury Academy and taught writing at Lyndon State College.