While salmon gets the modern day mentions and Midwesterners are wild about whitefish or walleye, from an historical standpoint it’s probably shad that really should be our national fish. (It is, in fact, the state fish of Connecticut). To be convinced you need only read John McPhee’s marvelous book, “The Founding Fish,” or really any other work about early American food history.
It’s The Founding Fish
It was a fish that was native to the New World, it had (and still has) phenomenal flavor, and-because they spawned in most every river on the East Coast-almost everyone in the Colonies had access to them.
Shad was consumed in large quantities by Native Americans long before any Europeans arrived, preparing it primarily by stewing it, smoking it, baking it in clay or cooking it on wooden planks. The stories of how plentiful they were are wild-thousands of shad taken in a single netting, millions of pounds caught each spring. Because they were so plentiful shad were really poor people’s food (though a special one it seems), served in seemingly every home and hotel on the East Coast-almost every old regional cookbook offers a number of recipes for them. Native to the East Coast, the shad was taken west in the 1870s and it now swims out in the Pacific Northwest in good quantities. If you’re really into it check out the Haddam Shad Museum in Connecticut.
Shad, like salmon, is an anadromous fish, meaning they’re born in rivers, go out to sea for most of their lives, then return upstream to spawn after being out at sea for four to six years. And that’s when they’re caught. Out in the ocean they’re incredibly strong swimmers and they go great distances during the year moving from coastal waters way out to the depths of the ocean and back depending on the season. During a typical shad’s five-year life it might swim a good 12,000 miles. Generally shad are a greenish-blue in color, about 30 inches long and weigh in at roughly three to six pounds. There are three forms in which the shad arrives. Buck shad (no antlers but these are the male fish) which are generally considered the most flavorful for eating, roe shad (the females which are returning to spawn) which are also very tasty, and the roe. As the season goes on you’re getting bigger fish with bigger “sets” of roe – more on this in a minute.
Shad-lovers love it with a Passion
The thing that gets me most excited about shad is how excited other people get about shad. Having been doing all this homework on shad and catching the wave of passion that shad lovers seem to have in abundance, I feel like someone who’s been hearing about Paris for years and is about to go for the first time. Mike Monahan, who knows his fish (and whose Monahan’s Seafood Market in Kerrytown across from the Deli was listed in this year’s “Saveur” magazine Top 100-the Deli was in last year’s). “The fish is great,” he told me with that calm confidence of someone who’s known it for years. Mark Furstenberg, one of the country’s great bakers and cooks at the Bread Line in Washington, D.C., told me that, “I grew up in Baltimore where shad is king. Well, perhaps crab is king and shad is crown prince. I was in my youth a shad fanatic. And, he added to drive the point home: “I remain a shad fanatic today. No food excites me more than shad.” That’s no small statement coming from someone who’s traveled all over the world and generally eats very well wherever he goes.
It’s Strictly Seasonal
One of the interesting things about shad is that it’s still only something you can get in season. When I asked Pat Shure, long time Ann Arborite who grew up on the East Coast, about shad, her first comments were about the seasons. “It’s the thing that we don’t have any more. . . . that you have to wait for things. We’d get it every spring. There are too many things that have become year round but this is still this thing that is only seasonal. You have to wait ’til the spring and get the shad and the new lamb.” Mark Furstenberg said much the same thing. “Lamb may be a symbol of spring for some people, for me the meal that welcomes spring is shad, asparagus, and boiled new potatoes. Even today,” he went on, “my 95 year old mother drives(!) from her old folks home to Eddie’s Supermarket when the shad begins to appear so that I can be the first person in Washington to eat spring shad.” Now that’s a Jewish mother who loves her son, and some very serious devotion to seasonal eating.
The Roe’s Equally Amazing
One of the great things about the shad is that it’s not just the fish but also the roe that’s so special. The best roe is lighter color, a nice orange to dark orange. If you really want to go all out, you eat the two in tandem-we’ll be serving them that way when we can at the Roadhouse and you can do the same at home if you pick up some of each at Monahan’s Seafood Market (in Kerrytown). The roe-or egg-sacks (there are two in each female fish) are usually pan fried very lightly, then eaten as an appetizer or as right alongside the fish itself with just a squeeze of fresh lemon, salt and black pepper. As much as people love the fish, some folks get downright radiant over the roe. Molly Stevens, author of a bunch of really good cookbooks, the most recent of which is “Braising” (which, if you like to cook you should definitely own) told me that, “Even better than the fish, I like the roe-slowly fried and basted with bacon fat.” Which reminds me to tell you about the bacon.
It’s Better With Bacon
What isn’t you might ask? But shad… well, it seems like shad goes with bacon like the birds and the bees, bread and butter, peanut butter and jelly or whatever analogy you want to use. The bottom line is that most everyone that’s into the shad scene follow up their initial enthusiasm with some description of cooking it or eating that involves bacon. “Fry the bacon first and take the bacon out and then cook the fish in the bacon fat very lightly,” were Pat Shure’s instructions. Personally I’d go with the old-fashioned dry-cured, green-hickory smoked Virginia bacon we get from Sam Edwards down in Surry (where they eat a lot shad every spring too), but I’m sure it would be good with Nueske’s Applewood smoked bacon or the Arkansas Peppered Bacon as well.
The Bones add Flavor
No reason to hide it. Where most fish have one small row of pin bones in them shad have three. Shad-fish-ianado John McPhee wrote that, “Some foods seem to have been put on earth to challenge the ingenuity of the cook, and to reward the clever ones.” Citing olives and artichokes (and I’ll add lobsters to the list too) as examples, he goes on to say, “A similar challenge among fish is separating the delicious meat of shad from its many tiny bones.” Pat Shure remembers the bones rather fondly. “Your mother would say ‘Be careful of the little bones’ and you’d say ‘I know, I know.'” One method to deal with the bones is to cook the fish for a seemingly insane six hours which some say “melts” the bones down. Apparently the Delaware Indians did this in pre-colonial times but I’ve heard mixed comments from folks on its effectiveness, and it’s not my cooking method of choice. For me, it’s just about making peace with the bones. In the same way that olives come with pits, the bones are part of the package. You can at times get the shad already boned, but those in the know frown on the resulting reduction in flavor that think goes with it. As Mark Furstenberg relates, “My grandmother, whom we used to call “the last of the Edwardians,” had nothing but scorn for boned shad, knowing how much flavor bones add to fish during the cooking process.
It’s One Great Tasting Fish
Speaking of flavor, the Latin name for the fish- Alosa sapidissima-means “delicious” and in this case, there’s a lot in the name. The main thing is that I think it tastes really great. If you haven’t already guessed, I love the stuff. It’s flavorful without being in the least bit strong. A fish that most every fish lover (if they can be at peace with those bones) will likely enjoy. A fish with a history. Cook it with bacon. Or as many old Philadelphia cooks did, with lots of butter. Or with a little olive oil, garlic and chopped parsley. Monahan’s will have it in all spring, and we’ll have it regularly on the specials list at the Roadhouse too in a number of special preparations as we move through the season, along with shad roe specials too. We’re planning on featuring the shad as long as we can get it, prepared as the Native Americans did on oak planks. Planking is such a big thing that they actually have shad planking festivals on the East Coast. And we’re excited to be able to offer this old time taste of American authenticity up for Ann Arbor diners this spring. If you’re up for facing the little bones, come by and order a plate of this fine all-American fish.