This film was directed and produced by Liz Russell as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.
Fish Roe: Finding a Way Back to Our Plates, with Alexander Gilliam – Charlottesville Virginia – Interview Story
By Liz Russell
Some say that this country was founded on shad. Legend has it that spawning shad saved Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge. One of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite dishes was a roe soufflé, made with fresh shad or river herring. And in fact, for thousands of years before white man stepped foot on this land, Native American tribes up and down the Mid-Atlantic harvested these fish as food and as fertilizer for their crops. However, a combination of factors, mostly man-made, resulted in shad and river herring populations dropping drastically through the 19th century. Conservation and management efforts as dramatic as fishing moratoriums and sustainable hatcheries show positive signs for the future of the species; however, as an item on our dinner plates, shad and herring seem to be fading out of memory and tradition.
Planners and historians frequently talk of the importance of “sense of place”, in regards to buildings and structures. I argue that “sense of identity” may be just as important to a community. Honoring history and tradition serves to strengthen ties to the land and to each other. The legacy of shad and herring is of particular importance, not only in reasons of economics and livelihood, but also in honoring the seasons of nature, something from which we have become removed. What would it be like, after long winter months of salted and preserved foods, to celebrate the arrival of spring with the return of these fish and their delicious roe? How much enjoyable would these foods be if we tasted them at their best, not by picking them out of the frozen foods section of the grocery store This food heritage story is one that sheds light on a fish, on a place, and on a memory.
American, or white shad (Alosa sapidissima), the smaller hickory shad (Alosa mediocris) and two species of closely-related river herring – alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) are anadromous fish, meaning that most of their life is spent at sea, migrating up rivers in the springtime to spawn. Virginia was once famous for its “spring runs” of anadromous fish like shad and river herring. They also supported Virginia’s large commercial fishing industry. However, by building dams that block their route upstream, overfishing, and pollution of water, shad and river herring populations were so depleted by the 21st century, that Virginia passed a moratorium on river herring and shad. *
Due to the dwindling population and subsequent fishing moratorium, as well as changes in culinary trends and tastes, shad and river herring have become a forgotten food of American culture. In earlier times, entire shad and herring were consumed whole, both fresh or preserved in salt. Now they are generally considered too bony for modern tastes., The roe, however, is still considered a great delicacy, even if people today are less familiar with this traditional food.
Shad and herring roe, unlike preserved caviar (the roe from a sturgeon) is best when served fresh. The female fish is harvested for her roe, found in egg sacs, or lobes, which can be prepared in a variety of ways. One popular way of eating roe is sautéed alongside scrambled eggs. In a 2012 interview, Alexander Gilliam, University of Virginia class of ’55, long-time Charlottesville resident, and current Protocol and History Officer at UVA recalled one particular 24/7 establishment located under the old Belmont Bridge, at the western end of downtown Charlottesville. Mr. Gilliam and his UVA classmates would frequent the C&O Diner after parties and on Sunday mornings, but “it was a place that catered to the people that worked in the railroad yard.”
The fate of the diner was sealed with the construction of the “new” Belmont Bridge in 1963; it is likely that the building was demolished to make way for the wider bridge. To read more about the C&O diner, please refer to the Appendix.
“The other way to eat [fish roe] was to make cakes,” explains Gilliam. “Considered good, cheap food,” canned herring roe was mixed with filler such as eggs, onions and breadcrumbs, and fried in bacon drippings. “Those two things were dishes that were universal in Virginia. They just disappeared.”
However, for a very short period of time every spring, Virginians can still find fresh shad roe, provided they know where to look and are willing to pay a premium for it. “It has begun to come back,” says Mr. Gilliam. “The first serious sign of spring is on the chalkboard at Andersons Seafood place on Barracks Road, when they announce that ‘Shad Roe’s in.”
Although today there are challenges that keep shad and herring roe from regaining their prominent place in our economy and our diets, I have two hopes for the future: (1) that through conservation and sustainable fishery efforts, we can begin to see these fish returning to our rivers; and (2) through keeping memories, recipes, and traditions alive, we can begin to see them coming back to our plates as well. This is the true meaning of food heritage.
Springston, Rex. American shad aren’t coming back in Va. Richmond Times Dispatch. http://www2.times dispatch.com/news/2009/may/25/jame25_20090524-220625-ar-42428/ 25 May 2009 (Accessed May 2012). Ibid. Asman, Judy. Foods of Thomas Jefferson http://www.astuterecorder.com/presidents_foods/2009/february/ favorite-foods-of-thomas-jefferson-with-judys-deviled-eggs-with-anchovies-recipe.html (Accessed May 2012) Read All About It: American Shad. http://www.festival.si.edu/past_festivals/water_ways/kids_coast/pdf/ shadReadAboutIt.pdf (Accessed April, 2012) Ibid. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission http://www.asmfc.org/shadRiverHerring.htm (Accessed April 2012). Read All About It: American Shad. http://www.festival.si.edu/past_festivals/water_ways/kids_coast/pdf/ shadReadAboutIt.pdf (Accessed April, 2012) Virginia Saltwater Fishing. 6 February 2011. http://www.virginia-saltwater-fishing.com/2011/02/06/virginia-shad-and-herring/ (Accessed May, 2012) Ibid. Fish Passage Program. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/ fishing/fish-passage/ (Accessed April 2012). Springston, Rex. American shad aren’t coming back in Va. Richmond Times Dispatch. http://www2.times dispatch.com/news/2009/may/25/jame25_20090524-220625-ar-42428/ 25 May 2009 (Accessed May 2012). Chapter: Pertaining to River Herring. Virginia Marine Resources Commission. March, 2012. http://www.mrc. state.va.us/regulations/fr1260.shtm (Accessed April 2012). Regulation: Pertaining To American Shad. Virginia Marine Resources Commission. February 2012. http://www.mrc.state.va.us/regulations/fr530.shtm (Accessed April 2012). Fish. The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/fish http://thegarumfactory.net/2012/03/30/george-washington-ate-here-shad-roe-with-brown-butter-capers-and-ginger/ Alden, Lori. Caviar and Roe. The Food Thesaurus. http://www.foodsubs.com/Caviar.html (Accessed April 2012) Hastings, Michael. Roe will float your boat if you like it ‘fishy.’ Windston Salem Journal. 1 April 2009 http://www2.journalnow.com/news/2009/apr/01/roe-will-float-your-boat-if-you-like-it-fishy-ar-146735/ (Accessed April 2012) Gilliam, Alexander (16 March 2012). Personal interview. Ibid.
For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/courses/food-systems-resources.