For the Abundance of Shad, the War Was Won

William Tylee Ranney, Shad Fishing on the Hudson

When I was eight or nine and at the height of my Felicity Doll-catalyzed colonial America obsession, one of the books I read often was The Winter of the Red Snow. It was one of the Dear America books, those faux diaries that offered a child’s view on an important moment in American history. In this case, the moment was the six months George Washington’s Continental Army spent in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, from mid-December of 1777 through mid June of the following year.

It was, to put not too fine a point on it, a rough six months, or, at any rate a rough four months. Washington’s men, some eleven thousand in total, were almost completely bereft of the sorts of things necessary to weather a mid-Atlantic winter: warm coats, blankets, insulated dwellings. The men slept in wooden huts under straw and subsisted primarily on “fire cakes” — crude cakes made of flour and water (and weevils and maggots). A third of them were without shoes, the result of which lent The Winter of the Red Snow its gory title. Washington sent multiple entreaties for aid to Congress, but, initially Congress was more concerned with whether or not to keep the Commander-in-Chief than they were with the survival of his troops. That the men did survive is clear, but how they managed it is a little murkier.

Some credit can be given to Christopher Ludwick, a German baker who promised to put out 135 loafs of bread for every one hundred pounds of flour, and by all accounts, did so. Some, too, can be given to the young General Greene, who repeatedly apprised Congress of the camp’s many wants, and upon his appointment as Quartermaster, marshalled a greater flow of supplies and distributed them well. Some can be given to the Prussian officer Baron von Steuben, who swaggered into the camp in late February and soon had the soldiers drilling like a far more experienced army. And of course plenty can be given to Washington himself, who stuck it out in Valley Forge as his fellow officers begged off on furlough.  And yet, soldiers cannot live off bayonets and inspiration and weevil bread alone, which brings me to another source of survival credit: a particularly American fish, the shad.

Shad are oily and bony — too oily and bony to be of much interest to the modern palate, but livelihoods had been made off them since long before John Smith tried to catch them with a frying pan, in 1607. They are native to the east coast, and are often called the eastern analog to salmon, for, like salmon, they are born in freshwater, migrate downstream to the sea, where they hang about for a few years, and then swim back upstream to spawn. The spawning, and its migration, occurs each spring — earlier in the south east, and later in the north. In Pennsylvania, it generally occurs sometime in April, but, if The Winter of the Red Snow and earlier colonial histories are to be believed, in 1778, they came early. In his 1934 accounting of that winter, the historian Henry Emerson Wildes describes the troops wading into the river on horseback and in bare legs and jubilantly gathering fistfuls of shad:

“Countless thousands of fat shad, swimming up the Schuylkill, filled the river. Soldiers thronged the riverbank. The cavalry was ordered into the riverbed. The horsemen rode upstream, noisily shouting and beating the water, driving the shad before them into nets spread across the Schuylkill. So thick were the shad that when the fish were cornered in the nets, a pole could not be thrust into the water without striking fish. The netting was continued day after day until the army was thoroughly stuffed with fish and in addition, hundreds of barrels of shad were salted down for future use.”

And thus, the war was won, and thus, 240 years later, I am writing this as an American citizen, not a British one (more’s the pity!). Yes, I’m being reductive, but it’s fun, isn’t it, to boil down great boggy complicated things into a single, smooth marvel. Women were liberated because of pockets. The war was won because the shad ran early. Now for a bit of color/backtracking.

It’s very likely that Washington, who had barreled and sold the shad that traveled through the Potomac, in Virginia, since his early twenties, would have known that Valley Forge’s location, along a narrow stretch of the Schuylkill, was ideal for catching shad. He also would have known that, even under the best conditions, his troops would be in ragged shape come spring: an abundance of free protein would have been most welcome. Given just how poor conditions were, he might have hoped against hope for an early shad run, though there are no written records of this. And indeed, there are no explicit contemporaneous records of an early shad run, and we can be fairly sure they didn’t run earlier than February, as a 2000 excavation of Valley Forge found few shad bones in the midwinter middens. The earliest contemporaneous record I could find was in Washington’s expense books, which listed shad among the foodstuffs on April 6th.

At any rate, whether the shad ran early or not, the fact is that they ran, abundantly, and the abundance provided a significant boost to the Continental Army at a time when one was desperately needed. They are a fish to be celebrated, and I can think of no better way to do so than by gobbling up their roe.

Oh yes, the roe! Female shad lay their eggs — thousands and thousands of them — in convenient twin sacs, each about the size of a tween’s forearm. Uncooked, they are maroon, shot through with dark veins; cooked, they are more of a dun color, and cloches of tiny eggs often burst through the membrane and hop about the frying pan. On a plate, with some parsley and capers and a bit of lemon, they are about as un-Instagrammable as food can get, and unspeakably delicious. If you’re local, you can get them at Citerella or the Lobster Place in Chelsea Market. Carpe shad, and god bless America.

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