Forgotten History: Planked American Shad

shad meal
Yes I know. Cooking fish on a wooden plank is sooo 90’s, a fad that was everywhere and in every chain restaurant you could think of. However, cooking salmon on a cedar plank is an interesting North American tradition, going back thousands of years. It traces back to the Pacific Northwest where the Indigenous peoples would and still do cook salmon over a fire on planks of Western Red Cedar. Cooking a salmon fillet on a plank is interesting, but what about a different planked fish closer to home…? One that has just as long of a history…
Of course, I’m talking about the fish of Fishtown — Shad. Shad is also a fish that has been cooked over a fire on sticks and planks made of Eastern White Cedar, Hickory, and Oak for thousands of years. It was a valuable spring food for the Native Americans. The Lenni Lenape fished for it in all of the tributaries and rivers, in fact, they petitioned William Penn because the colonists were damming the Delaware with their mills and it was affecting their fishery. Penn made the colonists take down the mills, but treatment didn’t last past Penn’s death. The colonists got a taste for shad and it became a valuable commodity, being salted, pickled, smoked, and sold on streets and at the market. They too would cook shad on wooden planks with bacon. George Washington himself was a commercial shad fisherman.
So why doesn’t shad have the same renown as salmon, especially in this area? Probably because of the bones. Shad are notorious for having 300 bones per fillet. If someone was late, the Pennsylvania Dutch would actually joke, “What? Have you been eating shad?” Despite the bones, it’s a delicious fish and what better way to eat it than with my family-style meals. Another issue with shad is that it is hyper seasonal. They only run for a very short time, so the season passes very quickly. I love offering shad at Elwood, it’s a true American culinary classic, and a Mid-Atlantic regional foodway that should be celebrated. I’ll be running it as long as I can. Check out the video to see me prepare it.