by Kaitlyn Goalen
photographs by Jillian Clark
Ramps, truffles, Pappy van Winkle. Ingredients in short supply, whether by season, production, or fetish, are a double-edged sword. Exclusivity breeds interest – generally a good thing – but it can also engender a market of elitism and inflation. As someone deeply interested in food, I’ve always been fascinated by these blips where ingredients and pop culture intersect.
Last October, Oxford American documented a story about an ingredient with a cultish presence right here in North Carolina. The poetic article described a long-enduring East Arcadia tradition called Blue Monday, wherein the community gathers the day after Easter to partake of a humble fish fry. The fish in question: shad.
A relative of the herring, the shad is a rather unexciting, even unappealing fish to cook with. Its pungent, oily flesh can be a turn-off for some, but the toughest sell is its bones. Shad has them in spades, to the point that Native Americans referred to these fish as inside-out porcupines. Eating shad essentially guarantees that you’ll be picking your teeth with its skeleton.
So I was fascinated. What about shad has compelled so many? I hit the books, looking for recipes and researching traditional preparations until I found what any Carolina fisherman could have told me: It’s all about the roe.
Each spring, shad flood from the Atlantic into coastal streams to spawn. The roe of pregnant females has long been considered a special springtime delicacy, only available from late February to April, depending on the year. Fishermen mix the roe with eggs for breakfast on the water; Edna Lewis, dame of Southern cooking, includes a recipe for a shad roe breakfast in her classic cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking. Sean Brock, the tattooed chef and Southern food historian, pan-fries shad roe and serves it with rice grits, riffing on a common application in lowcountry kitchens. Many suggest simply poaching the roe in a bit of butter and serving it with a liberal squeeze of lemon, or wrapping it in bacon and cooking it whole.
Armed with this information, I was eager to try the stuff, so I put in a call to Lin Peterson at Locals Seafood, asking him to inform me when the shad began to run. By early February, Lin sounded the alarm, and I found myself in possession of two oxblood-colored roe sacs. Though they resembled a pair of lungs, I put a lid on my doubt, trying to remember how I felt the first time I saw a truffle or an oyster up close. Good food isn’t always pretty.
Here’s the thing about cooking with rare ingredients: It reminds us to pay attention to our food in a way that buying a plastic-wrapped chicken breast from a supermarket fails to do. Hunters and farmers live with this feeling; when you watch something grow from a seed to a tomato, over the course of months, you’re going to appreciate the BLT you make with it that much more.
So even before I tasted the shad roe, I was appreciative of the process it had forced. The cooking and eating of the roe had become an event. I was excited and careful as I gingerly laid the lobe into the pan with some butter. I was anxious as it cooked, feeling the risk of screwing it up and wasting this precious fleeting product with my miscalculations. I was elated as I drew it from the pan and took a fork to it. Briny, earthy, and rich, the roe was delicious. It was both a satisfying meal and a mental triumph; the end of journey that brought me one food tradition closer to knowing this place I call home.
Shad Roe with Grits and Tomato-Bacon Sauce
Serves 4 as an appetizer
Shad roe comes in the form of two lobes connected by a thin membrane, inside of which are thousands upon thousands of eggs. For this recipe, seek out two sacs (4 lobes) that have no tears or holes in them.
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
4 garlic cloves, divided
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 strips smoky bacon (such as Benton’s)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
½ cup sherry
2 cups stone-ground artisan grits, soaked overnight in 8 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon butter
2 medium shad roe sacs (4 lobes), membranes intact
1 cup Wondra or rice flour
Canola oil, for frying
3 lemons, divided
Make the sauce: Preheat the oven to 350°. In a bowl, combine the tomatoes, 3 of the garlic cloves, thyme, honey, and olive oil. Toss to coat the tomatoes and transfer the mixture to a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and pepper, then transfer to the oven and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes have shrunken slightly and released some of their juices.
In a large skillet over medium heat, add the bacon and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until the fat has rendered and the bacon is golden-brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Mince the remaining garlic clove, and add it and the scallions to the bacon. Cook, stirring until the scallions have wilted, about 7 minutes. Add the sherry and the roasted tomatoes and any juices from the pan. Bring to simmer and cook for five minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
Make the grits: In a large pot over medium heat, add the grits and the soaking water. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When the mixture begins to boil, remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 5 minutes. Return the pot to medium heat, add the bay leaves, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the grits are cooked through, between 30 and 45 minutes, adding water by the ¼ cup if the grits begin sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the butter, season with salt, and keep warm.
Prepare the shad: Carefully dry the lobes with paper towels, taking care not to rip the sacs. Place the flour in a shallow dish, and coat each lobe. To a skillet add 1 inch of canola oil and heat over medium heat. When the oil is hot, carefully add one of the sacs to the oil. Be warned: the sacs will sputter, so use a splatter screen if you have one, and be very careful. Fry the sac until it is golden brown, about 6 minutes, then turn over and fry on the other side, about 5 minutes more. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and salt generously. Repeat with the other sac.
To serve: Spoon a bed of grits onto a large platter. Arrange the two roe sacs on top of the grits and top with a generous amount of the tomato-bacon sauce. Slice the lemons into wedges and arrange around the grits. Serve immediately.