With its small olive eyes stamped above a slight snubbed nose, a mouth fixed in a downward smile and a puffed opalescent belly, the shad is an unassuming fish.
But it’s also a tasty fish. Nineteenth-century epicures prized the shad’s fatty tender flesh and delicate flavor. During shad season (February to June) American fishermen thronged to rivers with scoop nets and seines, hoping to bring home their share of the popular fish. In Brooklyn great heaps of freshly-caught shad could be found piled on doorsteps, waiting for the unlucky housewife to do the malodorous business of cleaning and deboning before salting and storing the fish away.
Just a century before, however, shad was considered a positive nuisance. Farm laborers living near the Connecticut River insisted shad be served but once a week for dinner. Anything more was considered cruel and unusual treatment. Entire families felt dining on shad a shameful act: One night, while feasting on a dish of broiled shad cheaply bought, a family in Hadley, Massachusetts suddenly heard a knock at the front door. Terrified lest someone witness the ignoble and unfashionable dinner, they quickly hid the plate of half-eaten shad in a cupboard before inviting the unexpected guest in.
Shad then was fed to the hogs and the poor. In 1733, an impoverished housewife could purchase two shad for a penny — a price almost embarrassingly cheap. The fish was usually eaten baked, boiled or broiled, but never fried as it contains too much oil. Should you not feel an undue amount of shame at the prospect of preparing such a fish, try this 1856 recipe for broiled shad, which can be served with a slice of lemon and boiled potatoes.
Scale, wash and score the shad, then mix together one tablespoon of salt, and one of sugar; rub this over the fish, and let it remain for two hours; then wash it again, dry it on a towel, and season with cayenne pepper and salt. Heat the gridiron [or frying pan] and butter the bars; broil it [the fish] gradually; when one side is well browned, turn it. When done, place it on a dish; baste with butter and send to table hot.