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It takes patience, nimble fingers, and a sense of adventure if you want to eat shad or shad roe. No, I’m not referring to the almost surgical skill required to subdue the complex network of pin bones in the meaty fish. And no, I’m not talking about the educated palate required to appreciate the lobelike egg sacs, whose gamy character, a sort of cross between foie gras and caviar, turns off many otherwise intrepid eaters.
Patience and nimble fingers because you will spend hours with the phone book, as I did, trying to track down the places that serve these regional delicacies during shad season, which begins in late March and ends in mid-May. Adventure? I dialed more than 70 restaurants, some of them more than once.
“Is that a drink?” a reservationist at Georgia Brown’s wondered.
“Cod? No, we don’t serve cod,” an employee at the Sea Catch informed me. “Shad,” I repeated, enunciating as clearly as I could. The sound of hand muffling phone, then, aside, “Do you know about something called ‘shad’?”
Even at restaurants claiming to have the fish, there were no guarantees. I dropped by for lunch at Oceanaire, eager to make short work of the broiled Carolina shad, only to be told, “Sorry. We had it in just last night, too.” I was advised to call ahead; in the weeks that followed, I rang up so often that I started to feel like the ex-boyfriend who can’t let go. They knew what I wanted before I even asked. “You’re the guy that’s looking for shad.” As if I were the only one.
Maybe I was, to judge from the surprised looks I got when I ordered the more readily available roe. “You like that?” the bartender at Melrose wondered as I inspected my appetizer. The fleshy brown lobe, its dark veins prominent, was cut into inch-thick slices that exposed the brilliant orange-pink of its interior. It was delectable, complemented by an early-spring salad of tender green beans, peppery arugula, and crispy bits of bacon in a tart sherry-mustard vinaigrette.
The preparation of the season is a pan-seared shad roe with grits. I’d be depressed by the amount of duplication around town, were these dishes not so good. At Johnny’s Half Shell, a buddy and I tucked into something very near perfection one night: a single lobe, dredged lightly in flour, seared in bacon fat to a blushing pinkness inside, and bedded atop coarse-ground grits so creamy, yet toothsome, they were like risotto. A similar version at Pesce was also tasty, as was a somewhat softer rendition at Perry’s. The shad roe at Kinkead’s departed from the rule: cracklings instead of bacon, a parsley salad, and a lobe that was not seared but breaded and pan-fried. Delicious. At none of these restaurants did I encounter the fish itself; in a month and a half I ate it at only one place, the legendary Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown. The fish, unfortunately, tasted almost as old as the tavern itself.
Once scorned, then beloved, shad and shad roe are now largely forgotten—a sad circumstance for a fish that had risen so far in the public’s esteem. Two hundred years ago, shad was poor people’s food. The fish, usually pickled or smoked, was plentiful and cheap from the Carolinas to New England. The roe, meanwhile, was saved for bait or fed to pigs. By the mid-18th century, the reputation of both fish and egg had risen, a little: They found their way onto tavern menus. In the 20th century, as an American culinary consciousness dawned, preserving traditions took on new importance, and the steady and tasty food came to be appreciated at last.
Then decline. Dig up the 1972 edition of The Joy of Cooking: It contained eight recipes for shad roe. A generation later, that number was down to one—a simple sauté in the 1997 edition.
The disappearance of shad and its roe can be traced partly to a rapidly evolving culture, partly to what John McPhee, in The Founding Fish, refers to as the “trend to the finicky in the American culinary taste.” Besides, as Equinox’s Todd Gray told me, shad is a challenge, even to a chef as devoted as he is to honoring the region. “After the pin bones have been plucked out—which is crazy time-consuming, by the way—the fish is pretty beaten up. It makes it hard to make a nice presentation of it.”
So he doesn’t. He serves the roe, but only as an appetizer he “hand-sells” to his regular, more adventurous customers. “It’s something that people just don’t order, unless they already know it. And only the older generation seems to know it. To the under-40 generation, it’s like calves’ liver.”
At Melrose, a hotel restaurant that chef Brian McBride says, with no small pride, caters to a sophisticated clientele, “there is no demand for the actual shad. My customers are not familiar with the item.”
And it’s not just younger diners. Says Gray, “A chef in his 20s or 30s, a young kid coming out of culinary school, might not understand it enough to mess with it.”
Brendan Cox, 30, was Gray’s sous chef at Equinox; he now mans the stove at Circle Bistro. The fish doesn’t jibe with his French-inflected food, he says. “Given the proper menu,” he insists, “I’d be going crazy with shad.” He adds, however: “I don’t particularly care for shad.”
Komi’s Johnny Monis says he’s considered serving shad roe. “I’ve brought it in to play around with it.” But his menu is rooted in the Mediterranean. And the 20-something chef admits, “It’s something I just never had growing up, to be quite honest.”
Bob Kinkead, who has been serving shad roe in season at Kinkead’s for more than a decade, has watched as the fish has vanished from the public eye. “When I was first in the business, in the ’70s in Boston, we’d always have shad on the menu…. Now? Nobody has shad.” When Kinkead’s first opened, he served a portion of shad with a lobe of the roe. “Can we just have the shad roe?” customers asked.
Kinkead detects a shirking of responsibility in the fact that a generation of chefs so quick to proclaim its interest in all things seasonal and regional has all but ignored even the roe. “Here you got a local product, and clearly as special a dish as you can find in any regional cuisine in America, and it’s right in your own back yard.” He sounds as if he were addressing a seminar.
“That’s where you count on people like me,” says CityZen’s Eric Ziebold, “to introduce people to it.” The chef claims his French Laundry– derived interpretation—in which he slits open the egg sac, forces the eggs through a strainer, brines them overnight, and warms them gently over a low flame to create a porridge—emphasizes the nature of the dish. “We’re not hiding it with bacon. This is what it is. It’s roe. It’s caviar.”
Ziebold, like so many others, doesn’t serve the fish itself.
As the season continued, the fish began to acquire the appeal of the forbidden, like samizdat. I began to crave it. One afternoon, I stopped by Balducci’s and picked up a pound to cook myself. Yes, it was a pain—there were dozens of pin bones to contend with even after it had been cleaned. But it was beautiful, too—coral-pink in the glistening center, lightly brown along the edges.
I took the back of my knife and scraped the skin from the tail to the head. Butter and olive oil sizzled away in the skillet. I lay the fish down gently, spooning the liquid over the fillet once the skin crisped. Into the processor I dumped parsley, some capers, a few anchovies, a few shots of olive oil, and a few squeezes of lemon—a sharp, lushly green sauce for my sweet, meaty shad. The only fish vanishing on this night would be the one on my plate.—Todd Kliman
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