Sunday, June 7, 2015

SHAD, AN EXULTATION

     Rereading after many years Justin Kaplan's biography of Walt Whitman I came upon the passage about Whitman's trips in springtime to the Delaware River for planked shad during the shad run on that river. That raised memories for me of the noblest fish of all. Yes, salmon were the property of English kings and, yes, living in the Northwest hard by the Canadian border where salmon is not just king but parsed and qualified by run and by river I recognize the delights of salmon but it is shad that holds the magic for me, shad for which I long, shad with which no other fish can properly compare. And it is particularly shad from the Connecticut River that enchants me so.

     According to the legends of the Algonquian peoples who lived along the lower Connecticut River we did not always have shad. So the story goes there was once a little porcupine, a lonely little creature who greatly wished to have friends amongst the other creatures of the great primeval forests. He approached his fellow creatures, the rabbit, the raccoon, the squirrel and offered his friendship but each time they agreed to be his friend the porcupine became so excited and overwhelmed with joy that instantly his new friends were a mass of quills and his friends no more. Alone and friendless this poor porcupine prayed to The Great Spirit who created all creatures to have this curse of quills taken from him that he might have friends. The porcupine prayed so hard, so long and so incessantly that at length The Great Spirit became annoyed with his constant importuning. Finally The Great Spirit, completely out of patience and in that way that divine beings have of answering our prayers in the most unforeseen and undesirable way possible, reached down, took the little porcupine, turned him inside out and tossed him into the Connecticut River where he and his ancestors are, to this day, the shad.

    That delightful legend accounts for the boniness of the shad which is actually a member of the mackerel family of fishes. It does not, hoever, account for its deliciousness.

     My mother was a New England cook taught by her own mother who'd grown up at the end of the 19th Century in Maine. That education in cookery was something of a cliche of meat and vegetables boiled until they were grey but not entirely. Mom could roast a delicious chicken, turkey or duck. Anything that required a stuffing required two New England essentials: Pepperidge Farm Stuffing Mix and Bell's Seasoning. They remain the foundations of any stuffing I make. When my mother baked shad filets they were stuffed with Pepperidge Farm Stuffing spiced with salt, pepper and Bell's Seasoning. To get the bones out of the flesh of a shad requires incisions toward the skin both above and below the backbone. When stuffing the filet those flaps of flesh were folded out, the stuffing laid down the centre of the filet heaped up and spread out to the sides. The flaps were then folded back over the stuffing and several strips of raw bacon laid over the whole which is next popped in the oven until the filet and bacon are cooked.

     Now pair that shad filet as my mother seldom did with lightly steamed fresh asparagus or fiddleheads and a lemony Hollandaise sauce and you have a meal that is a delight to you and as sublime, redolent of delightful, delicious scents and tastes and as evocative to me as Proust's madelaine dipped in tea. With that let me take you on a remembrance of things gone by.

     From the time I was a toddler some sixty-five years ago we made pilgrimages every spring to Spencer's Haddam Shad Shack. Perhaps it is still there. On my last trip almost twenty years ago it still stood on the east side of what is now Connecticut Route 154 beneath an ancient, high railroad embankment just south of the town of Haddam. If it exists only in memory now that is sad but in truth even on that last trip Spencer's was only the ghost of the place I remember. Even the Route number has changed. In the days that I recall Route 154 was Route 9. The new Route 9 is an expressway as efficient and uninteresting as a dumpster. Route 154, however, winds through the towns on the western bluffs above the broad river valley

     The shad run on the Connecticut River is short, starting late in April and running through May into the early part of June. On a weekend in May each year we would make the pilgrimage to Spencer's. Then not only was there no Route 9 expressway but neither was there a Route 8, 84 or 93. All those roads came later. We would set out from Waterbury on Route 69 to Prospect then turn onto Routes 68 and 70 past Blackie's Hot Dog stand and on into the centre of Cheshire. There was a succession of cars in which we rode. The first was a 1949 Packard hardtop Coupe. Later there was a Dodge with a push button transmission and a blue 1953 Chevrolet coupe. In Cheshire we jogged south through town on Route 10 until we'd turn east again onto Route 68 past Choate School and the Cheshire Cemetery following it to Wallingford. In Wallingford we'd pick up Route 157 to Middletown and then Route 9 (now Route 154) south following the broad river below and to the east through dogwoods and forsythia and magnolias, through Higganum, and Haddam, and several smaller groups of houses along the way to the more prosaic landscape in which Spencer's stood, a whitewashed shack with a hand-lettered sign set back from the road to accommodate parking on the dirt.

     Spencer's had a central door with a screen door on the outside and multi-light frame windows wrapping around the front half of the building. On the inside under those windows on either side of the door was a wooden shelf painted white and braced from underneath. At those shelves sat women in flower print dresses and white, blood bespattered aprons. There must have been at least four women though there could have been six or eight, that I do not precisely recall. Each woman had a complement of knives. On the shelf flanking each woman sat rectangular bins. On the floor on either side of each woman stood a pair of buckets. In one bucket were whole shad. In the other bucket lay the remains of the shad that had gone before: heads, bones, fins, guts. In the bins on the shelf beside them lay filets of shad in one and the occasional roe in the other. These women would haul up a shad from the whole fish bucket, knives would flash and, in a magically brief time probably longer in fact than in memory, the detritus of the fish would land in the offal bucket, two fillets would lie in the filet bin and, if they were in luck, a pair of roe would lie in the roe bin.

    As amazed as I was by these women frantically fileting shad after shad with a learned, artistic precision I never spoke to them nor do I recall anyone in my family speaking with them. For a small boy they were fearsome creatures, all bloody, smelling of fish and wielding exceptionally sharp knives. Venturing too close to one of them I might be mistaken for a shad and wind up fileted in some secret bin kept for the remains of too adventuresome boys. By the time I was old enough that nostalgia and confidence gave me the courage to speak with them, the women were gone. Spencer's was by then simply vending shad cleaned and fileted. That is not to say that Spencer's was not worth the trip but rather that some of the mystery and magic was gone along with those impressive women.

     When last I visited Spencer's the middle aged woman running the place told me that the last of those women had died a year or two before but she could still sell me several filets, a couple of smoked filets and two pair of roe.

Electric ells, I might add, do it,
Though it shocks them, I know.
Why ask if shad do it?
Waiter, bring me shad roe!
                      - Cole Porter, Let's Do It, 1928 from the musical Paris

     Shad roe is the Creamsicle orange, slightly crescent shaped egg sacs of the female shad. The countless eggs are covered in a thin, edible membrane that joins the two crescent halves and as Cole Porter knew it is delectably edible. The roe is the prize of the shad run even beyond the wonderfulness of the fish itself. Take that pair of roe, dredge it in flour mixed with a little salt and pepper then lightly fry it in butter until the color changes to a lighter, more pink shade. Then serve it with some asparagus or new peas and a couple wedges of lemon and you have a transcendent meal.

     Ultimately this, like all memories, is not about shad or Spencer's per se. I write to you about the taste of a great fish, the fragrant lusciousness of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing Mix when laced with Bell's Poultry Seasoning, the tartness of a squeeze of lemon on the fish or roe, the delicate explosion of flavor when a bite of roe bursts into thousands of tiny, pearl-like eggs in the mouth, the beauty of the 18th Century villages along the Connecticut River in spring when adorned in Forsythia, magnolias and dogwood, the gabble of the brook in Seven Falls State Park during a picnic, the vast back seat of a 1949 Packard, those amazing women in bloodied aprons with flashing knives and a problematic family making a slow progress toward the tiny chapel of Spencer's to worship the minor god, Shad. Of that family, Like Job's servant and Melville's Ishmael, "I alone am come to tell thee." When a bite of stuffed shad enters my mouth the taste is sweet and bitter with all those memories, a history that extends from the middle of the 20th to the beginnings of the 21st Centuries and may or may not go on much longer. What I would tell you, even beg you, is that, in spring, when the shad are running in the Connecticut River, you pack a cooler and take a drive. Get to Middletown howsoever you will but then take Rt. 154 south. Enjoy the scenery, the scent of riotous, blossoming spring in the air. Find Spencer's or some place that sells shad. Buy a filet or two and some roe. Put them in your cooler on ice for the drive home. Then continue down toward Chester to the ferry landing and ride the ferry across with or without your car though regardless you should get out of the car and view the river. If you choose to take your car drive up to Gillette Castle. It won't be open until Memorial Day but you can still enjoy the view of the river from its high bluff. Maybe stop a while in the wilds of Devil's Hopyard State Park which the native tribes thought was the home of their trickster god, Hobbomocquo, and then continue back to the bridge a little to the north to the west side of the river. When you get home bake the filets however you please and then tell me how every sight and sound and smell of that trip resolves itself into each bite of shad. Make that trip and that meal of shad an annual ritual so that one day as an old man you can write to others and tell them of the sublimity of the fish suffused with the brilliant light of all those memories and how it still savors though you've not eaten a single bite in many years. Do that and you shall hold the beating heart of history in your hands.

     I hope that Spencer's Haddam Shad Shack is still there open, like Brigadoon, for its few weeks each year. Though the ominous magic of those fileting women has passed into memory it may still be a wonderful place to buy delicious fish each spring as worthy of historic preservation as the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry just a few miles south of Spencer's. If it is gone, Connecticut has lost something dear to me and, I'm sure dear to many more for whom spring along the Connecticut River means the short but eagerly awaited shad run.