Nothing says spring like two fat roe sacs on a plate. That’s what our great grandparents thought, anyway. Much of the food our forbears looked forward to arrived in the manner that many folks want theirs today–slowly, locally, seasonally. Sadly, though, foodways fall victim to time and progress as easily as obsolete places do. What better way to connect with the past than to enjoy the delicacies that people once anticipated with pleasure?
Shad roe–an erstwhile spring treat–is hard to come by anymore, and it’s our own doing. The American shad used to make spring spawning runs up the Chesapeake Bay in droves. Not so today. Overfishing and pollution caused the fishery to collapse.
Ask an old timer who spent time near the Bay, however, and chances are good he remembers dining on shad roe. My grandparents and mother-in-law liked shad roe.
The sacs themselves contain hundreds of thousands of tiny eggs in two oblong lobes. People used to eat the fish’s flesh, too, but the shad’s an oily, bony creature that takes a little getting used to. The roe was something special, though, rich and meaty, without all the hassle of plucking bones between bites.
Early spring is the only time to get fresh roe. That’s when there’s a month-long window that the local fish monger will be removing the sacs from the recently-caught fish that arrive. You can find shad roe anywhere along the Atlantic seaboard, although in Virginia and Maryland yours will likely be trucked in from elsewhere; those states closed their American shad fisheries years ago.
Shad roe won’t win any beauty contests, which can be off-putting. But if you can get beyond the aesthetic hurdle, there’s a food there that’s not half bad. Besides, jowls, brains and other unmentionable organs were once considered the cuisine of the elite. Roe, which is only eggs after all, might be the least daring foray into the vanishing foods of the past.
I took the leap and tried the roe two ways. Most recipes seem to employ hearty amounts of bacon. For the roe-and-swine pairing I chose John McPhee’s formula, found in his comprehensive volume on the American Shad, The Founding Fish (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002). I’ve abbreviated and annotated that recipe here:
“Cover the bottom of [a] cast-iron skillet, thick-sliced if you want to go sooner. Snip the bacon to fit. One contiguous layer will do. **I went with thick-sliced, which may have had something to do with the bacon being a bit undercooked.** Salt and pepper the roe sacs. Cover the pan. Put it on the burner at medium heat and do not go away. Do not answer the telephone. Exile wives, children and even grandchildren–out!–for a couple of minutes while you listen. After the bacon begins to sizzle,**This started within a couple minutes.** turn down the heat to the lowest level you are able to achieve without turning the burner off. Shad roe can explode if steam inside it builds up too rapidly. What you want to hear is a low, regular, consistent sizzle–not the sound of bacon rapidly crisping. If your lowest heat level is too vigorous, slip a wire spacer or heat diffuser under the pan, or some other device to hobble the burner.
Now set your timer for 35 minutes. Relax your injunctions on your family. Don’t stray too far, though. Go back every five minutes to listen–to be sure that the sizzling is neither too active nor extinct. **My stove’s lowest setting was “Simmer,” which was apparently too low, because the sizzling stopped, so I put it back up to “Low.”** Thirty-five minutes should do it, less if the roe sacs are small. **Thirty-five seemed just right for the roe, nice and firm, not too much. The bacon, though, needed more time.** With a couple of minutes to go, put on your oven mitts. Take hold of the lid handle and the pan handle and pour off the accumulated water and bacon melt into the kitchen garbage wadded with paper towels.
At the end of thirty-five minutes, gingerly feel around with a small spatula and free up any bacon that is sticking to the pan. Cover the skillet with an upside down serving plate. With one hand on the pan handle and the other spread flat on the bottom of the plate, flip the skillet.**I omitted this step entirely because I didn’t trust myself, so instead I took a good old fashioned spatula to it all.**
If the bacon is undercooked–or, more likely, undercooked here and there–remove the offending strips, finish them off in the skillet (or the microwave), and repair the thatch. **As mentioned, I had to do this.** Seen out in the light, the cooked roe is cosmetically disadvantaged in that the veins are evident and there has been no browning. **Boy, howdy. My wife said it looked like brains and refused to be in the same room with it.**
Chop the ends off a lemon. Render it hexapartite and sit down. That’s all the sauce you need and–in my house–is all you are going to get. You have your shad roe. You…are…in…business.”
The roe tasted good. It had a slight fishy taste but was not overpowering or offensive. The sacs were firm and flavorful . A forkful combination of roe and bacon was a carnivore’s delight.
I tried another recipe I found in an old cookbook because it did not: a. contain bacon, or b. require me to look at the homely sacs. This was more of a spread, akin to a pate. From The American Woman’s Cook Book, edited and revised by Ruth Berolzheimer, Consolidated Book Publishers, Inc., 1941:
“Shad Roe Sandwiches
1 shad roe
Yolks of 3 hard cooked eggs
1/2 teaspoon paprika
3 drops tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
Cook the roe and mash it together with the yolks of the hard-cooked eggs. Add an equal amount of creamed butter, the paprika, tabasco sauce, anchovy paste, and salt to taste. Spread between thin buttered slices of bread. Slices of lemon, peeled and salted, may be put between rounds of buttered bread and passed with the shad roe sandwiches.”
Of the two recipes I tried, this was my favorite. The ingredients impart contrasting attributes: the sweetness of the butter vs. the saltiness of the anchovies vs. the richness of the eggs and roe. Any fishiness in the roe is masked by the other flavors. This is ideal for a cracker or sandwich spread should you desire something rich and filling. You could put this out at a dinner party without disclosing the contents and it would go quickly.