Years and years ago, each and every spring, a Baltimore landmark restaurant called Danny's would hang a mysterious sign outside their front door. "The Run is On" said the sign, and every spring I would be left puzzling what that was all about. And I call myself a Baltimorean. Well, I don't have to tell you it meant that the shad were running and shad roe was on the menu. It was a rite of spring.
The story continues here.
The run starts in the Atlantic near Florida, with the shad running up fresh water springs to spawn. They have spent the winter months fattening up down south for the run, which will take them al l the way to New England.
The fish we are talking about it officially known as the American Shad, and although you can catch it Maryland, since 1980 you have to throw it back. The season is brief, occasionally very brief, and as the legendary African-American cook Edna Lewis said, "shad is one of the very few things left to enjoy that still comes but once a year."
In Maryland the shad season has already started, in fact, the people at Eddie's of Roland Park date it to February 12, just two weeks ago. This is about as early as it has ever come. John Perone of J.J. McDonnell wholsesale seafood told me he expects the season to go on maybe another 8 weeks or so. As for the waters of origin, most of the shad we get here in Maryland actually comes from Georgia and the Carolinas, with the end of season shad coming from the Connecticut area.
To be sure, although the shad that runs into our waters in late winter is fat with sweet, succulent meat, it is also the boniest fish in the world. So getting at that good meat is tough, with hundreds of tiny bones threatening your throat. The solution is to slowly bake the shad on a wooden plank, which allows those soft little bones to dissolve (for the most part). And credit where it is due, the native Americans of the Chesapeake came up with this technique and it's been with us ever since.
Now it's not only the meat that shad lovers swoon over. There's also the eggs, the celebrated roe. And here's a little biology lesson for you: fish eggs either are carried by the tens of thousands as individual eggs, or they are tucked away in an egg sac. Shad roe comes in a pair of egg sacs, and the first time you see it, you may be put off your feed. A membrane, replete with blood vessels, connects the twin sacs and together they look like an internal organ from some non-specific life form.
The love of shad roe is usually something of a family legacy. You either grow up loving it, or you have to go through aversion therapy. For those who love it, cooking shad roe with bacon is nothing short of a ritual. Here's why: the little eggs will explode if subjected to too much heat, so you want to regulate the heat very carefully. Secondly, you want to use the best bacon your region can provide to match up with this great regional delicacy. It's sort of the original surf and turf.
Many traditional recipes call for the bacon and shad roe to be cooked together in your grandmother's heirloom cast iron skillet. This make sense because you can't beat cast iron for slow even cooking. Allow at least a half hour for the bacon and roe to cook, and you may want to cover the skillet to induce a gentle blanket of steam.
Shad roe are often incorporated into scrambled eggs, or omelets. And a wee glass of Amontillado sherry would not be out of place. One fellow I know deglazes his skillet with the sherry to make a very nice pan sauce.
As a history buff, I can't resist this little story from Civil War days. In the final weeks of the war, in April, 1865, the rebels were holding a long line at Petersburg. The extreme right of the line was held by General George Picket, who like every man in his army was slowly starving to death. One day he got a report of a nearby shad stream, and along with Generals Tom Rosser and Rooney Lee he went AWOL. So while the Confederate brass were stuffing themselves a few miles away, the Yankees attacked and over-ran the leaderless Rebs. Picket had his shad bake, but he was fired by Robert E. Lee in disgrace. All this for a plateful of shad.