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The Shad Are Running

The hardest part of preparing Wolf's simple shad roe is careful handling of the delicate sacs.
David S. Deutsch for NPR /
The hardest part of preparing Wolf's simple shad roe is careful handling of the delicate sacs.

Fishermen say when the forsythia blooms, the shad are in the river. Well, the forsythia is flowering down the street, and the shad are at the fish market, just where they belong.

You know winter is ending when the shad start their run from the ocean to freshwater rivers. They are — here's a new vocabulary word — anadromous, which means that when it's time for them to spawn, they return to the fresh water where they were born.

While I love the fish, I'm wild about the roe. I am not alone. All up and down the Mid-Atlantic Coast where the largest shad runs are, shad fanciers will be euphoric until around Mother's Day when it suddenly disappears.

I grew up in the Midwest nowhere near shad and was introduced when I moved to Washington, D.C., where the late-winter delicacy is well known. Like many converts, I'm quite passionate in my devotion. My fish seller says when the shad roe comes in, he has customers who buy it every week for its short season.

To some, the appearance of raw shad roe can be off-putting. The roe comes in sets of two connected sacs — filled with hundreds of thousands of teeny eggs. The color of the sacs varies from tan to deep red, depending on the fish's diet. The veins are clearly visible through the translucent skin of the sac. As you learn to love it, shad roe becomes a beautiful thing.

In the South, shad and its roe are commonly served for breakfast. The late Edna Lewis, the dean of Southern cooks, grew up in a Virginia piedmont farming community. In her bookThe Taste of Country Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf 1990), she writes that her family ate shad and its roe for breakfast with scrambled eggs, bacon, steamed hominy, new honey, hot coffee and a little dandelion wine.

"It was," she wrote, "truly a meal to celebrate the coming of spring."

Shad roe is commonly cooked with bacon and served with grits for breakfast. While I make it as a dinner dish, I often top the roe with tiny fried quail eggs. Traditionally, people pair shad roe with bacon and eggs, although I find that the bacon flavor overwhelms the delicate taste of the roe.

Shad has an important place in American history as well as on the American table. For example, shad saved George Washington's army from starvation at Valley Forge. The hungry troops were saved by a big shad run in the spring of 1778 on the Schuylkill River.

The Civil War Battle of Five Forks might have turned out differently but for the shad run on April 1, 1865. Confederate Gen. George Pickett had orders to hold Five Forks at all costs. But Picket and Fitzhugh Lee, the cavalry commander, were invited to a shad bake and left their underlings to fight Gen. Phil Sheridan's Union troops. By the time the generals got back from the shad bake three hours later, the Confederacy had lost a big battle.

American Indians taught the early English settlers to cook shad by nailing it to cedar planks and cooking it slowly over an open fire. In the course of cooking, the trillions of tiny shad bones dissolve. Shad are so bony, the Indians called them porcupine fish. Fortunately, boned shad are available.

Shad is a sweet, tasty fish. The Latin name is sapidissima, meaning "most delicious." I just put a little salt, pepper and lemon juice on shad filets and run them under the broiler for a few minutes.

I make shad roe simply, too, dredged in seasoned flour and sauteed in butter and olive oil. Both the shad and its roe are so good and have such a fresh taste, they shouldn't be overpowered by other flavors.

Every year when the first shad roe appears in the market, I make the same dinner: shad roe, lemon rice and tiny asparagus with browned butter. I put a few forsythia branches on the table, and no matter what the calendar says, at my house it's spring.

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Bonny Wolf
NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.