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Every year about this time, residents of Lambertville, along with thousands of visitors, go a bit daffy, flocking to the soggy spring shores of the Delaware River and dancing and feasting in the streets. What causes this temporary insanity? Why the annual shad run, of course.
This strong, handsome fish has a violet sparkle along its tail and a metallic greenish-blue that fades to silver on its flanks. Shad are hardy swimmers. Born in fresh water rivers, they make their way out to sea, where they mature, reaching weights up to eight pounds and lengths up to nearly 30 inches.
In spring, when the water begins to warm, shad by the thousands make a mad dash to their river spawning grounds.
A hundred years ago, shad was as economically important to the Mid-Atlantic as salmon was to the Pacific Northwest. But by the mid-20th Century, the Delaware was so polluted that celebrating the annual migration would have been unthinkable.
Thanks to the tireless commitment of various environmental groups, the numbers of fish furiously swimming upstream have gone from a few dozen to nearly a million. Definitely cause for celebration!
Shad, a member of the herring family, is tasty. Its Latin name, alosa sapidissima, roughly translates to “most delicious.” Being boney, shad is often eaten with the fingers. Unless it has already been filleted, I think navigating with a knife and fork is a bit less messy.
A cooked shad fillet is white and flaky, but its oily consistency draws comparisons to another regional stalwart: bluefish. Local chefs work the filets into salads, spreads and casseroles.
The greatest prize is the female fish’s roe, which comes in long, burstingly plump, membranous sacs. Some consider shad roe an acquired taste, likening it to chicken liver. It isn't nearly that gamy. In fact, the roe has a huge fan club. It's often wrapped with bacon and sautéed, a memorable treat.
In Lambertville, at this year's 31st annual Shad Festival, “There will be shad wraps, shad chowder and grilled shad,” says festival coordinator Ellen Pineno, “But if you are not a fish lover, the food court has everything from hamburgers to fried calamari.”
She also recommends visiting the demonstrations of both colonial and Lenape Indian preparations of the fish. For a complete list of participating vendors, artists, entertainers, restaurants and more, see lambertville.org.
The festival takes place Saturday and Sunday April 28th and 29th, from 12:30 to 5:30 PM. Weather and river conditions permitting, there will be steamboat rides. Other festivities include live music, arts, crafts, games, an historic walking tour, and of course, much eating of the coveted fish, available only once a year.
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.
EDITOR'S NOTE: John McPhee, Princeton's unsurpassed chronicler of the natural, artisanal, sporting and scientific/industrial worlds, happens to be an avid shad fisherman. He wrote an entire book about shad, called The Founding Fish. Like all of McPhee, it is fact-filled, fascinating, surprising and hard to put down. Goes well with bacon-wrapped shad roe.