Every spring the shad return to the Hudson River to spawn, and with them the Hudson Valley tradition of the shad bake. Both remind us of the gains made in cleaning up the river, the work still to be done to guarantee public access to the river, and the good taste of baked shad. All that and more were made clear Saturday, May 3 at "Drums Along the Hudson: A Native American Festival and Shad Fest" held at Inwood Hill Park in northern Manhattan.
The park, where Spuyten Duyvil meets the Hudson, occupies a spot the Lenape called Shorakapok. "Drums Along the Hudson" featured a wide range of Native American dancers and singers; their artistry was a reminder of the many Indian cultures of North America. There were also elements of modern pan-Indian culture for sale, including "Indian Tacos" (which my friend knew as "Navajo Tacos" when he ate them in Navajo Country): fried bread with refried beans, ground meat, salsa, cheese and sour cream. They're great even if they don't help your cholesterol count.
But for me, as a second-generation Hudson River canoeist, the culinary treat of the day was the Hudson River shad. Christopher Letts of the Hudson River Foundation and Tom Lake of the New York Dept. of Environment and Conservation set up a shad bake and an educational display. I learned a lot about preparing shad (which I will put into practice) and the state of the eel population of our oceans (which is declining for hard-to-understand reasons.)
Letts served samples of pickled shad and smoked shad, which were prepared in advance, and baked shad cooked on a white oak plank propped up next to a bed of coals. I liked all three.
I've enjoyed shad cooked in an oven, but the coals and the oak make planked shad a special treat. Here's a recipe from the Hudson River Foundation.
Build a hardwood or charcoal fire on sand, dirt or gravel.
Take an untreated plank of wood an inch thick, a foot wide, and about 18 inches long.
Place two shad fillets lengthwise on the plank. Place strips of bacon across the fillets and tack them to the plank to hold the fish in place.
Prop the plank near the fire at an angle of about 60 degrees. If you like, nail wooden legs to the sides of the plank to hold it upright.
Cook the shad slowly, moving the plank so the shad doesn't cook too fast or burn. If the plank or bacon burn, the plank is way too hot. Give the fish at least an hour to cook. This is slow food of the finest kind. (And if you're health conscious, shad is rich in the omega III fatty acids that reduce cholesterol levels and heart problems.)
There are a few more shad bakes between now and the end of the shad season. You can get the dates from the Hudson River Foundation. They'll also give you reasons to eat Hudson River shad that go way beyond their rich flavor:
Your participation at a shad bake puts you in the ranks of those who support traditional Hudson River commerce. It says you appreciate recreational opportunities along the river and espouse land use practices that insure public access and public use of resources. A vote for a baked shad is a vote for a healthy Hudson River.