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What I was looking for was rhubarb, that rusty-red oddball harbinger of spring here in North Carolina. Planted in big patches out by the pathway to the summertime garden, rhubarb stalks poke up early and beckon cooks to make pies as a farewell to winter and “y’all come on in!” to the blossoming sunshine season sometime between mid-March and mid-April. Not this early, however, not even at my local Whole Foods where fresh rhubarb shows up around this time of year.shad at whole foods

Meandering past the fish and seafood counter at my local Whole Foods, I spied a Southern springtime specialty which had not even crossed my mind: shad roe. The biggest member of the herring family, shad (Alosa sapidissima) are anadromus, like salmon, sturgeon, smelt, and striped bass: born in fresh water, they swim downriver to live in the ocean until time to spawn. Then they migrate back upriver during their spawning season, which in the case of American shad, is spring. Treasured by native Americans, shad has been valued both as a tasty (albeit very bony) fish and as the source of shad roe, which are pan sauteed, simmered in cream, and scrambled with eggs among other preparations. They grow to about 2 pounds/24 inches, and live for about 5 years in the wild.

Though I’m a North Carolinian born and raised, and though my fascination with and affection for traditional old-time foods in general and Southern heirlooms in particular, I neither knew about nor tasted shad roe until last year at Crook’s Corner,  where my friend Bill Smith puts it on his menu each spring

American Shad, from US Fish and Wildlife Service

American Shad (Illustration from collection of the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

But there it was, carefully arranged on ice in a row of  flame-red glistening lobes, beautifully accented with slices of lime. The nice young man who helped me recommended pan frying it with bacon and serving it with grits. The words ‘bacon’ and ‘grits’ gave me the green light to  make the leap from sweet to savory, from rhubarb to shad. Heading to my Southern food bookshelves, I found abundant information on shad, from  John Martin Taylor (Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking); John Egerton (Southern Food); Jean Anderson (A Love Affair with Southern Cooking); Damon Lee Fowler (Classical Southern Cooking); and Eugene Walter (Time-Life Foods of the World: The American South). My friend Bill Smith’s book “Seasoned In the South” contained a recipe as well. I’m sure there’s more, but by that time I was ripe and ready to get this beautiful and beloved food to the stove and the table.


It was a matter of frying up some bacon (or side meat or pancetta) and keeping the grease hot grease for cooking onions and the shad roe in the rich salty gifts left in the skillet.IMG_6677Cooking a pot of grits, which takes about 30 to 35 minutes — good to start the grits and let them simmer and soften up while you cook the bacon, onions and shad. These lovely grits were on the shelf in the same grocery store, in a charming cloth sack with recipes on the back….Note the big nubby texture and colorful nature of good old time grits. Such a pleasure to cook and to eat. I plan to try the shrimp and grits recipe right on the bag….



While the grits were cooking, I fried the bacon and then the sliced purple onion in the same grease. Once the grits were done, I covered them and set them on the back burner while I finished up the shad roe.

IMG_6686Here’s my one ‘set’ of shad roe, a pair, which I gently separated just before cooking, and dredged lightly in flour. The flour was absorbed by the time I got them into the pan. They need gentle handling, but not too a wildly fussy degree. I let them get nice and brown before turning, as you want to minimize turns. Here below is my finished dish. Very hearty and very satisfying. All the recipes I saw recommended big portions for each person — to me, this is more of a go-with, Asian style. Half a set with lots of grits onion and bacon was plenty for me. I wouldn’t mind some scrambled eggs on the side, matter of fact.


Bill Smith’s Shad Roe with Red Onion, Bacon, and Grits

I’ve adapted Bill’s recipe, from Seasoned in the South, here, using bacon instead of side meat or pancetta, and trading in the lovely wilted salad  he includes in his recipe for good ol’ grits, which I had on hand and longed to sample in the classic (fried fish or seafood + grits) combination. I loved it — rustic, homey, a little bit wild. If you love liver pudding/liver mush, ultra aromatic and blue-veined cheeses, and durian, as I do, you are a good candidate for shad roe fan-dom. Shad roe shares the texture of grits, making the pairing especially pleasing. While this Southern treasure shows up in spring, it seems to me a rustic, hearty, basso bye-bye from wintertime, unlike asparagus, rhubarb, lamb and other standard primavera pleasures. I had only one pair/set of shad roe, so the portion above has a more modest serving of grits and onions than this recipe.

4 pairs (or sets) of shad roe

Ice water

(Cooked grits, to serve 4 people, hot and ready to serve)

1/2 pound side meat, pancetta or bacon

1 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 medium-sized red onion, peeled and cut into strips. (about 2 cups)

1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley

4 tablespoons lemon juice, plus chunks of lemon for garnish and extra seasoning

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Rinse the pairs, also known as ‘sets’, of shad roe gently. Place them in ice water to firm them up. (They are encased in a membrane that you want to leave intact, but sometimes there are extraneous veins and connective tissue that you should try to carefully remove. In a large skillet, cook the bacon, or dice and render the side meat. Remove the cooked bacon or side meat to a plate. Make sure the grease is still nice and hot, and add the thinly sliced purple onion. Cook, turning and tossing often, until the onions are softened, shiny, and fragrant. Add the parsley and toss well. Transfer onions to the plate alongside the bacon, and set aside.

To cook the shad roe: Heat the bacon grease in the same skillet over medium-high heat. (If using side meat and it seems a little skimpy, you may augment it with butter or oil. Mix together the flour and salt. Prick the shad roe a few times on both side with a straight pin. (I Nancie did not do this. No pin handy, plus I plumb forgot. No problem ensued.) Dredge the shad roe sets in the flour and shake off the excess. Fry in the grease, turning once, carefully, about 3 to 4 minutes on the first side and 2 or 3 minutes on the second side. They will brown a little. Be careful because sometimes they will pop, especially toward the end of cooking. When they are hot through, remove from heat.

Pour a generous portion of the grits onto a serving platter, or into a large serving bowl. Place the shad roe on the grits. Break or crumble the bacon into nice chunky pieces. Arrange the crumbled bacon and the purple onions alongside the shad roe on the grits. Squeeze lemon juice over the shad roe, and garnish with additional lemon chunks if you have them. Serve hot.

Serves 4


#Let’s Lunch is a worldwide-web-based circle of food writers who blog about a theme each month. This month the theme is Daffodils and other (edible) signs of spring. Grab a plate and go see what my friends in the #LetsLunch circle have served up on their various blogs for your reading/cooking/eating/dreaming pleasure:

Don’t forget to check out other Let’s Lunchers’ daffodil/spring/life dishes below! And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #Letslunch — or, post a comment below.

Annabelle‘s Red Pepper and Eggplant Confit at Glass of Fancy

Anne Marie‘s Zihuatanejo (Or Veal Shank Redemption Sammy) at Sandwich Surprise

Cheryl’s Singaporean Barley Water at A Tiger In the Kitchen

Grace‘s Meyer Lemon and Mandarin Citrus Bundt Cake at HapaMama

Karen‘s Wasabi Tuna Steak at GeoFooding

Linda‘s Brassica Fried Rice at Spicebox Travels

Lisa‘s Salad of Chargrilled Sourdough, Tomato and Haloumi Cheese at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Lucy‘s Carrot Souffle at A Cook and Her Books

Monica‘s Roses and Eggplant at A Life of Spice

Rebecca‘s Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Mango Foam at Grongar Blog

 And leave me a comment on what spring means for you in the kitchen and at the table. If spring gives you ideas and inspirations for food and cooking, leave me a note about that  in the comments. 

About the Author
Nancie McDermott is a food writer and cooking teacher, and the author of ten cookbooks. Her passion is researching and celebrating traditional food in its cultural context, and her beloved subjects are two seemingly different places with much in common: the cuisines of Asia and of the American South. Nancie gained her Southern kitchen wisdom as a Piedmont North Carolina native,and her Asian culinary research commenced soon after college, when she was sent to northeastern Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer.
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  2. spicebox travels Reply

    Nancie, I can assure you my Whole Foods does not stock shad roe! It looks intriguing, and a nice flavor contrast to those creamy grits.

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      They did specify “Local!” and “NC-sourced on these beauties; they will only be found in range of the larger rivers on the Atlantic Ocean where those determined shad can swim upstream in time. NC, Virginia, SC, and Georgia from the coast to the Piedmont, before the mountains, are where these are known and scarfed up over a few weeks’ time. I’m amazed by how widely they are covered in Southern cookbooks, once I took a notion to go looking. “Intriguing” is the perfect word for shad roe.

  3. bettyannq @Mango_Queen Reply

    What a wonderful post! I have never cooked with shad roe before but I trust your recipes, so I’m bookmarking this to try. This is my kind of meal ! Thanks for sharing, Nancie!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Thanks, Betty Ann. Your posts always inspire me. Now I’m looking for shad so I can cook and taste the fish as well as the roe.

  4. Lucy Reply

    I read about shad roe in Edna Lewis’ cookbooks, but I really didn’t know that much about it until this story. Thanks so much for a beautiful and inspiring post!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Lucy, she is the first source I wanted to consult when I found shad roe and bought it. I gave away my copy of Taste of Country Cooking to a friend who wanted to learn about Southern cooking — no better source than that book for the beautiful big story, I think. This reminds me to get myself a copy.


    My Springtime treat are wild leeks, or ramps. I have them sent to me by friends in Pennsylvania. I’ve heard they grow in Western N.C. and also in W. Virginia. Might be a nice weekend jaunt to go ramp digging!
    I pan fry slices of a good quality ham, and as I fry the slices I place my cleaned ramps, leaves and all on top of the ham, then cover and let them steam. I serve them with buttered boiled potatoes along wtih a glass of porter or stout. It’s a delicious way to celebrate the rites of Spring!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      What a splendid springtime feast. I have never had ramps, though I have been reading about them for years. What I remember from years back, when writers I read presumed that the readers had never and would not likely encounter them, was an outspoken and emphatic discussion of the alleged stinky qualities of ramps. That they were odiferous in all forms, and that people who ate them also ‘reeked’ for some time afterward. Since ramps have been discussed and celebrated in the last….5 or 7 years…? in food writing and on restaurant menus and in farmers’ markets, I have never once seen a reference to this supposed quality. Anyway, whatever aroma they may have, I have felt certain that I would love them in any form, and hope to find some this spring. I love your description, of putting them in to cook away off of ham-steam. Brilliant, beautiful, and your entire meal is one worth saluting (and repeating) here. I shall raise my glass of porter/stout in your direction. Keep writing!

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  7. lafujimama Reply

    This is one of those posts that has me wanting to pack up my suitcase and come show up on your front doorstep like a sad puppy begging to be taken in. And if you feed me shad roe, I promise to do all of the dishes.

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      What a treat that would be for me! And I do not mean the dishes-doing-offer. We would cook up a good time! One of these days, LaFujiMama!

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