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Shad by Gary Allen

Every spring, probably since the last ice age, several species of ocean fish travel—like salmon—up the Hudson to spawn. First come the shad, then herring, followed closely by striped bass. The shad are actually a large species of herring, while the striper is an entirely different animal, a giant predator living high on the food chain. Shad, on the other hand, live low on the food chain—eating tiny zooplankton and occasional small fish. Since they live in the river for a relatively short time—as juveniles and as spawners that return after three to six years in the open ocean—they do not accumulate in their flesh the PCBs and other pollutants found in the river. Consequently, they are the only species of Hudson River fish to be commercially harvested.

Native Americans were the first to notice this annual bounty, and it provided much of their year’s food, well into the 1940s. The early Dutch settlers—of what was then known as Nieuw Amsterdam—were amazed by the river’s richness. They marked the beginning of spring by the arrival of the shad. They called the silver shad “elft,” the Dutch word for “eleven” because the fish appeared regularly on March 11th (obviously the shad run takes place at different times, depending on how far upstream one looks for them). It’s not surprising that native Americans and Dutch immigrants were impressed by the Hudson’s shad—they arrive in vast numbers, and they are tasty. The species name, Alosa sapidissima, literally means “most delicious shad.”

The shad market is not what it used to be, but out in the wide shallow waters where the Tappan Zee Bridge crosses the river, commuters can still see rows of poles sticking up, marking the places where shad fishermen have placed their gill nets.

Once the shad reach Kingston (90 miles upstream from Manhattan) in late April, early May, they begin to spawn. Some old-timers used to call the fish “lilac shad” because their arrival coincided with the familiar purple flowers. Once the fish arrive, shad festivals follow, where folks can sample planked shad (the fish split and nailed, spread wide, on boards facing beds of hot coals), roasted just as it has been done for centuries, or opening foil packages of buttery steamed shad roe.


Here’s an old recipe, from Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery, published in Philadelphia, 1851.


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Baked Shad

Keep on the head and fins. Make a force-meat or stuffing of grated bread crumbs, cold boiled ham or bacon minced fine, sweet marjoram, red pepper, and a little powdered mace or cloves. Moisten it with beaten yolk of egg. Stuff the inside of the fish with it, reserving a little to rub over the outside, having first rubbed the fish all over with yolk of egg.

Lay the fish in a deep pan, putting its tail to its mouth. Pour into the bottom of the pan a little water, and add a jill [or “gill” which is four fluid ounces] of port wine, and a piece of butter rolled in flour. Bake it well, and when it is done, send it to table with the gravy poured round it. Garnish with slices of lemon.

Any fish may be baked in the same manner.

A large fish of ten or twelve pounds weight, will require about two hours baking. [note: a large shad, today, is about six or seven pounds—so Miss Eliza was probably thinking of another species, that is, “any fish;” since she does not specify the temperature (oven thermometers were not invented for another fifty years) and the size of the fish varies, so cooking time is uncertain.]

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References:

Dunwell, Frances F. The Hudson: America’s River.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2008 (in press).
Trager, James. The Food Chronology. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1995.



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