Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Shad Beatitudes (or, Shaditudes)

For years I've attended Lambertville's Shad Festival on the banks of the Delaware River in New Jersey.  For those of you who don't know what a shad is, it's a fish.  It's the largest member of the herring family.  The American shad is an anadromous fish, meaning it lives in saltwater but it spawns in freshwater.  Each spring, shad make a run from the ocean up their natal streams to spawn and then return to the sea.  Known as poor man's salmon, shad have been harvested by Native Americans during the annual spring spawning run for hundreds of years.  Native Americans also taught colonialists how to catch shad to feed their families.  This fish is also credited with saving George Washington's troops from starvation in Valley Forge as they camped on the banks of the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River.  In a sense, the shad saved our country from the grips of British imperialism. Long live the shad!

Over 30 years ago, Lambertville was in need of reinventing itself due to challenging economic times. At the same time, efforts were being made to clean up the Delaware River. The clean-up efforts paid off when Alosa sapidissima re-emerged.  What a fortuitous event. Shad saved the day again and quickly became a symbol of rebirth for the town. The Shad Fest has run the last weekend of April ever since.

About 30,000 - 40,000 people descend upon the tiny river town of Lambertville over a two-day period to see live music, artists, crafters and to enjoy food and drink.  Shad, while very bony and oily, is a full-flavored fish and can be difficult to prepare, but weep not for there are historians and vendors who will show you the way should you plan to cook it yourself, whether it's shad chowder, shad wraps, grilled shad or shad roe, a favorite delicacy. It's all about the fish at the festival.  Well, not really.  But it gives reason to celebrate the warm weather after a long winter and to commence the party season in Lambertville and New Hope, another artsy town directly across the bridge in Pennsylvania.

Sadly, I will not be able to attend the festival this year since I have moved out of the area.  I will miss watching fishermen go shad seining, a Colonial-era method of using long nets to catch the shad. I will miss making my own shad prints, done by painting an actual shad and then pressing it onto paper.  I will miss the message board on the local church with it's clever sayings like "seek and ye shad find," and "knock and it shad be opened." It has been a tradition in my life for many years to attend with friends and family and to buy the "O-Fish-l" Shad Fest tee-shirt for my father, who loved to fish the Delaware River for bass and shad before he retired and moved away.  The shirt became his birthday gift each year since it falls during the same week as the festival.  But ask and ye "shad" of my friends will be attending and has agreed to send me a shirt so my father doesn't miss out.  He prizes his collection of shad fest tee-shirts like the fish he's caught and mounted on the wall of his man cave.

For many people, the shad is "just a fish" and nothing more. It swims, it breeds, it dies. For the folks of Lambertville, it represents renewal, economic recovery, and a time for celebration.  I root for the shad the way Southerners do for catfish because it is part of the regional heritage of an area that I grew to love over the years.  It strengthens the bonds of community, bringing friends and family together each spring as spirits are rejuvenated after hibernating all winter.  Here's to honoring a fish that saved a town, the troops, and the nation. Who would have ever thought that a fish would become so special?  If it's not the national fish, it should be.

For more information about the Shad Fest, go to:
Photo courtesy of Google images at

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