Shad. Need We Say More?

ECHO underway, posted Wednesday, November 17, 2010

If you see a faded sign by the side of the road that says
15 miles to the … Shad Shack! Shad Shack yeah
I’m heading down scenic Saybrook Road
Looking for the little red shack
Heading for Spencer’s Shad Shack, Spencer’s Shad Shack
I got me a car, it ain’t as big as a whale
But we’re headin’ on down
To the Shad Shack
I got me a camera, it takes pictures plenty
So hurry up and bring your questions twenty
The Shad Shack is a little old place
Where we can learn the State fish
Shad Shack baby, Shad Shack bay-bee
Shad baby, that’s where it’s at,
Ooo Shad baby, Haddam’s where it’s at

Sign says “closed” but this fool goes
‘cause history rules as everyone knows
Well it’s set way back and is the last remaining shack
Dated 1930 and I gotta get back

Glitter on the shad skin
Glitter in the sunshine
Glitter in the river
Glittering net and line

And with apologies to John McPhee, whose book, The Founding Fish (2002) is a worshipful study of the American shad, the so-called “poor man’s fish.” But for this recent transplant to this state, the extant Connecticut River “shadscape” itself offers much to learn about a food, an industry, and a way of life. Windsor’s Shad Derby, Essex Rotary Club’s Annual Shad Bake, and Haddam’s Shad Museum (212 Saybrook Road) celebrate and chronicle the fish’s importance in Connecticut history.

Shad return from the salt water of Long Island Sound to spawn in the fresh waters of the rivers that feed the Sound. This invariably invites arguments about what river produced the best shad—the Connecticut or the Hudson. This may be read, of course, as a precursor to the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees debates. For now, we’ll let the partisan editors of the New England Kitchen Magazine have their way. In 1894 they observed: “There is still some contention among epicures, says The New York Tribune, as to which river produces the best shad, — the Connecticut or the Hudson; but the consensus of opinion is generally in favor of the large, fine fish that is caught in the stream further down East.”

New England, 1, New York, 0.

The editors also offered their instructions for planked shad:

This method is really a kind of broiling. The fish is flattened and kept in place, flesh side outward, on a hardwood plank, by two steel bars. It is sprinkled with a little butter and seasoning, and in this condition is exposed to the fire. The skin side of the fish is cooked by the heating of the plank which is placed upright from the fire, and sometimes becomes even slightly charred, though this is evidence of the heat being too intense.

The shad fish has 1,300 bones, so all we can say (with apologies to Julia Child) is “Bon(e) Appetit!”