Shad and How to Plank It

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How to Plank a Shad

by James Hoyt, 1904

You have been told so often how to plank a shad that it seems idle for me to talk about it at all. But there are planked shad and planked shad, and you know nothing of the properly prepared delicacy until you try it in the Thompson mode. The oaken planks use are thirty inches long, twenty inches wide and two and one-half inches thick. They are used over and over again, and the more frequently they are employed the better they become uuntil they have been charred too much. A plank is first heated in an oven, and then the split fish is nailed to it and placed at a sharp angle before a brisk fire. It takes about half an hour to cook a six-pound shad, and during that time the board is frequently reversed from top to bottom, and the fish is basted almost continuously with the best gilt-edge butter. The latter operation requires the utmost care, for upon it depends much of the success of the planker.


“The prophetic eye of appetite” glistened expectantly as the fish, still upon the charred board, was placed upon the table. And say! wasn’t it delicious? Better than shad from anywhere else? Why, of course it was, you gillie. It must be confessed, however, that in these days of fast railroad transportation the Southern shad is not to be sneezed at. A few years ago, when they first came numerously into our market, they did not tickle the palate greatly. By the time they reached our kitchens the fish were too stale to be thoroughly sweet and enjoyable.


Nowadays, however, the Southern shad reaches this city the day after it is caught, and is not to be despised. Last February I ate planked North Carolina shad that was very delicious, but the meat lacked the firmness of our Delaware product. In fact, that is the defect of all Southern fish, the warmer waters of that region making the flesh flabby and soft. For that reason the Delaware shad will always excel in delicacy his Southern brother.


The former is absolutely incomparable, unless I except the shad of the upper Susquehanna. The fish caught at Columbia are, I think, slightly superior to those seined at Gloucester. The reasons for this are two-fold: In the first place the turbulent Susquehanna is crowded with fishways. Only the hardiest and finest fish can jump them, and consequently the prizes caught at Columbia fisheries make very small catches compared with those at Gloucester, and, having plenty of time on their hands, they cut the gills of each fish as it is caught and bleed it. They contend that this makes the meat much sweeter. There still lingers fondly in my memory the recollection of a fish treated in that way and served on Colonel Duffy’s hospitable table in his Marietta residence.


But I have left that planked shad of Thompson’s on the dinner table, and if we don’t return to it, it will be cold, and cold fish is an abomination that all honest persons abhor. How did it taste? Well, if you have ever eaten planked shad at Washington Park, you know that no mortal ever possessed the gift to describe its gustatory charms.


Of course, some of you will curl your lips and sneeringly mutter, “bones.” Well, my dear children, I don’t wish to impair my character for veracity. Delaware shad don’t have any bones; at least they don’t appear to have any. A deft servitor, with a rapid movement of the knife and fork and a neat turn of the wrist, removes in a twinkling the backbone from the fish, and attached to it are nearly all the other needle-like splinters that infest the shad carcass. I assure you that movement of the Washington Park waiter is a revelation to a man who has choked on the secreted shad bone.

From: Seen & Heard by Megargee, Volume 4, by James Hoyt, L.N. Megargee, 1904


In 1987, the Shad Boat was Named “Official State Historic Boat” of North Carolina

Planked Shad.

The plank used should be of well-seasoned hickory or of oak, about 3 inches thick. 2 feet long and 1 1-2 foot wide. Any soft wood gives a woody taste that is most objectionable. Get a fine roe shad, as fresh from the water as possible, scale, split down the back, clean, wash well and wipe dry. Dredge with salt and pepper. Place the plank before a clear fire to get piping hot. Then spread the shad open and nail it skin side down to the plank with four large-headed tacks. Put the board before the fire, large end down. In a few moments reverse the board, so that the other end will be down, and do this every few moments until the fish is done. To determine that accurately, pierce with a fork, and if the fish is flaky it is perfected. Spread with butter and serve on the plank, or draw out the tacks and slide off on a hot platter. Planked shad, like terrapin, should be served with baked potatoes, and, if possible, with green peas and a lettuce salad. The shad roe should be parboiled first to prevent the sputtering, then fried.

From: Village Improvement Society of Greenfield Hill, Connecticut.
Elizabeth Robbins Collection. Library of Congress, 1899.

Shad Planked.

This is the best way of cooking fresh shad. It must be beheaded, well scaled and cleaned, cut entirely open, and laid with the outside next the plank. The plank must, then be put (propped up) in front of the fire, and the shad broiled until thoroughly cooked through. Meanwhile the roe must be fried in a frying-pan. When the shad is removed from the plank rub some butter over it, and add a little salt and red pepper; serve on a hot dish without delay. Heavy slabs of oak, with cross fastenings of wire, may be bought in all the large cities, for planking shad.

From: The Unrivalled Cook-Book and Housekeeper’s Guide, by Mrs. Washington (pseud.)
Harper & Brothers, 1885.


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