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Shad Festivals in Lehigh Valley PA
Fish and Seafood
Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 8 and 9
Every year, from the end of April to the middle of May, schools of American Shad swim in the Delaware River. Thousands and thousands of them go upstream to spawn. These are big fish that can weigh four to six pounds; the largest on record weighed eleven pounds. I became aware, because of their strong fishy smell and many thorny bones, that many Americans are not interested in eating them. It seems that they just enjoy the sport of fishing for, what they refer to, as ‘game fish.’
In Pennsylvania some people do eat shad because they are inexpensive. Back in 1773, one penny bought two big shad. No longer anywhere near that price, in season they can cost forty or more cents a pound. There was a worker’s family in Philadelphia having a meal of shad, one story goes, that when their door-bell rang they hid their dinner before allowing anyone to see what they were eating.
On the other side of the world in China, during the same time period, schools of shad swim up the Yangzi River. They, too, are going to spawn. However in China, shad is considered a delicacy. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), shad was considered a tribute fish to be given to the Emperor.
From the Zhejiang Province to China’s capital in Beijing, a distance of more than a thousand miles, shad as tribute were brought to the palace. Airplanes, buses, trains, not even refrigeration existed during the Ming Dynasty so the shad were brought there by horseback, and they made the trip in less than forty-four hours. The riders would not stop for a meal lest the shad spoil. They rode and ate eggs and drank water and wine on their way to the palace. Only the Emperors, a handful of officials, and a few very rich merchants could afford to eat this special fish. Who else could pay the cost of one hundred ounces of silver for each fish?
A gentleman once wrote a poem admiring shad. He compared them to a great national beauty named Hsi-shih. He thought the texture of the fish so smooth and the taste as delicate as was the skin of this beautiful woman. I am sure his words and those who enjoyed this fish increased other people’s desire to afford and enjoy many shad.
Found not only in the Yangzi, but also in other rivers and streams along the China coast, shad is a delight. Any shad found in the Fu River, a tributary of the Yangzi in the Zhejiang Province, is said to taste best. The very best way to prepare shad is to steam it. Boiling or stewing are not considered good techniques for this particular fish. When preparing to cook them, the scales are best kept in tact because there is a layer of fat under these scales. That means leaving them on the fish will increase the taste of this fish.
For those who have never seen shad, they are silver-colored, live in very clean water, and are known to swim back to the ocean when they encounter polluted areas. It is said that no shad has been found in recent years in Shanghai fish markets because rivers nearby are heavily polluted.
In Pennsylvania, I owned a restaurant for many, many years and from my experience operating restaurants there and elsewhere in the United States, most people do not even know about this particular fish. How can they know if they like it?
There were no shad in the Delaware River from 1976 to 1979 because a factory discharged waste water into the river. Folk from New Jersey and Pennsylvania worked hard to clean up the river and they were successful. Soon thereafter, the shad returned, and then their population increased. Now, during the season, more than half a million shad swim in this river. To protect them, netting is prohibited, and only fishing tackle is allowed.
There is one exception to this law. It is for a New Jersey family named Lewis who live in Lamberstville. Their grandfather, Fred Lewis, once got a netting license by mistake. This permit remains valid as long as someone in the family still fishes for shad. When no Lewis family member remains, this permit will terminate. So knowing that, some years ago this author went to Lambertsville to witness more than five hundred shad caught in one netting. Actually, several nets worth of shad were caught, marked, and released at that time, for further study.
Since 1977, there is a Shad festival in this area. Local people, many of whom are Moravians, dress up and help everyone celebrate. It is lovely to see them in their light blue dresses and white nurse-like hats strolling around and enjoying this day, usually the first Sunday in May. Many Moravians live in the Lehigh Valley and in the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and in Easton, where I had a restaurant. Every year I enjoyed watching them and the festival.
From them, I learned that in 1741, many early Pennsylvanian immigrants were Moravian Protestants from Germany. They learned to fish and smoke shad from local Native Americans and they mastered the art of peeling the fish fillets and nailing them to a block of wood. They would add pieces of bacon and sprinkle them with salt and pepper, then squeeze some orange juice on the fish. People I met at one festival advised that the shad tasted awful even after smoking them this way. They joked that the block of wood tasted better than the fish. Because of their bad reputation, people came to the festival just for fun, certainly not for eating shad.
In 1987, on the tenth anniversary of this festival, a Shad-Cook-Off was held to see who could cook this fish best. This contest was divided into the two categories of professional and amateur. I owned the Mandarin Tang restaurant at that time and it was the only Chinese restaurant to participate in the professional group. Knowing the shortcomings of this fish, I decided to enter a recipe called: Spicy Shad Slices, Shanghai Style.
We made this recipe cutting the fish fillets and setting them to firm the flesh by drying them in the refrigerator for two hours. After that, we cut them into thick pieces, about an inch and a half by half an inch by two and a half inches and marinated them for about four hours. This we did by putting them in a mixture of soy sauce, wine, salt, five-spice powder, vinegar, crushed garlic, scallions, and ginger. We did this to eliminate their strong aroma.
When ready to cook, vegetable oil was heated in a very hot wok, the fish drained of their marinade, and they were fried for about three minutes until golden brown. Then they were removed from the oil, drained well, and set aside to cool. Next a wok was heated and a very small amount of oil added, just enough to coat the wok. The fish were smoked in this hot oil turning and sprinkling them with a little sugar to provide a sweet taste.
At this festival, they were served hot or cold. To make them look nice, we put the slices of shad back on fried shad skeletons. That made them look like whole fish. We also garnished them with parsley and lemon.
While waiting for the judges to make their selections, we demonstrated the smoking process and gave away free samples. Those who tasted, were quite surprised and said the shad tasted very good. They told their friends to come and taste, and many did. The judges must have concurred, because we won first prize. The next day's local paper, the Globe Times, ran a large picture on its first page of the Mandarin Tang's chef, Shen Yun-Long. He was doing a demonstration at the festival, and this author was explaining that to the people.
Years before, when a fish ladder was proposed for the Shad, it was never built, probably due to lack of interest and the fact that it was very expensive. However, after the 1987 Shad Festival, Paul Zeto the Mayor of Easton and other Congresspersons tasted our Spicy Shad and asked Congressman Bob Freeman and the head of the Easton Chamber of Commerce, Michael Dowd, to help get that fish ladder built. I was honored that they brought a plate of Spicy Shad to Governor Casey in Harrisburg to tempt him to preserve this natural resource. In 1989, more than two million dollars were allocated for this fish ladder. Since then, a local church sells 'Eat Shad Tickets' as a fund-raising event, and contestants and others come from all over the world to see and participate in this festival.
More than eight thousand shad are caught each year from the Delaware River, unfortunately, many are still discarded. Some Chinese merchants come to the United States to buy chicken feet and wings, and other items such as livers, kidneys, and intestines. They ship them back to China and make a good profit. If all the shad caught during the season were frozen and shipped to China, then defrosted and smoked, cooked fresh, salted, or whatever, money could be made and shad not wasted. To that, the Moravian Protestants would no doubt say, Amen!
So that you can learn to love shad, here are two recipes to try:
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