I know spring, and its promise of better climes, is coming soon. Can you guess how I know? Let's just say the porcupine fish told me so.
Long ago, before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Micmac, Mohican, Algonquin and many other tribes native to this coast relied on the bountiful spring shad runs to sustain their diets and buttress their exhausted stores. They called shad "the porcupine fish". According to folklore, the porcupine wanted a different station in life, so when it complained to the Great Spirit, it ended up turned inside out and thrown into the water, becoming the shad fish. This legend explains why the shad is so bony. This fact is a big turn-off for many chefs and home gourmands, and one could say that breaking down a whole shad into usable, boneless fillets is a lost art. Fewer and fewer fishmongers are taking this fish to task and the skill and precision needed to successfully make this bony fish palatable is not being transferred to younger generations.
But it's not just the meat that these fish are known for. In fact, it's not their flesh at all, but instead their roe (eggs) that stir the interest of many who still adhere to the natural, cyclical diet of the seasonal feast. Shad roe appears every year around this time, when the shad begin their spawning migrations up the rivers of our East Coast. Roe sets start popping up in markets and, state-by-state they make their way onto restaurant boards and dinner tables. Some say the younger generation has no taste for the full flavored, decadent viand, and that it's an ancient food only truly appreciated by older, more educated tastes. However, I believe there's a renaissance happening in which people are turning back to forgotten foods, especially seasonal and local ones with histories as rich as the shad's flavor.
Some say the shad helped win the Revolutionary War by sustaining General Washington and his troops at Valley Forge when food had disappeared and all seemed lost. After decades of plenty, shad later became a trapping of the wealthy, when only the rich could afford to savor the rich roe sets. Now, as fewer and fewer people venture too far from the salmon, shrimp, tuna, and snapper options on the market stand, the bright, striking roe sets stand out like phantasms of a delicious, but lost, culture. Maybe people will once again tune in to what nature is offering, on her terms of course. There's something promising about the shad returning. It's another spring, another chance, to get it right. It's a fish rich in flavor and rich in history. Eating and enjoying shad is a way to shake hands with the past, while facing a brave, yet familiar, frontier.