Herring, Shad, and Sturgeon

The anadromous species of fish—those that live in the open sea but swim up into our rivers to spawn—were important here in the Lowcountry in the old days. Prior to refrigeration, strongly salted and smoked red herring was immensely popular. Henry Laurens, a Charleston planter and merchant who was instrumental in molding the country’s Revolutionary politics, was proud of his own and sent them to colleagues abroad.

Smoked herring, locally called “kipper snacks,” is commonly found in the butcher’s case of a Lowcountry grocer, alongside the cured pork. It is often sold as bait, but it is also eaten as a snack; soaked overnight, sautéed with onions, and added to pilau; or ground and used in croquettes. It is “soul food,” a dish of area blacks. The briny cured fish is also cooked like Scottish “tatties an’ herrin’,” with onions added to the stew of potatoes, herring, and water. These are recipes that come from the Lowcountry’s great folk tradition, passed down from mother to daughter, father to son. I have never seen any of them in written form. The one exception is Willie Berry’s recipe for Dutch Herring, which follows.
Sturgeon were once so numerous here that there are several 18th- and 19th-century references to the mouths of our rivers so full that one could cross to the opposite bank by walking on the backs of the 10- and 12-foot fish. The roe of the female and the gonads of the male sturgeon, herring, and shad are delicious eating. I can remember my parents sending to Georgetown, on Winyah Bay, an hour north of Charleston, for fresh malossol caviar made from the Atlantic sturgeon to serve at a cocktail party.
Winyah Bay is fed by the Sampit, the Black, the Pee Dee, the Little Pee Dee, and the Waccamaw rivers. Only Cat Island separates the bay from the great North and South Santee. As it is now illegal to take sturgeons along the South Carolina coast, Georgetown caviar is a delicacy of the past. Howell Boone in Darien, Georgia, sometimes processes caviar “the Russian way,” from the eggs of the Atlantic Sturgeon taken in Georgia rivers, but strict limits are now applied to the sturgeon caviar fisheries.

Harriot Pinckney Horry, whose book of recipes begun in 1770 survives, lived on her Hampton Plantation, now a state park, about 40 miles north of Charleston and 20 miles south of Georgetown. Her travel journals provide glimpses into the homes and inns where she stayed, always with notes on the food. She sampled salmon, trout, and bass in New York, but “tasted none to equal our Santee fish.”

Shad begin appearing as soon as the water warms, as early as January in some years. The season lasts about two months as the fish move gradually northward. The roe shad, weighing from 3 to 5 pounds, are caught in our rivers in gill nets. They are both larger and tastier than the bucks, though milt is delectable as well. Recipes abound for the roe of the female, but the flesh of shad is often maligned because of the many bones.

In the Lowcountry shad roe is most often teamed with bacon. For forty years Zelma Hickman served fresh shad in her unpretentious Edisto Motel restaurant on the banks of the Edisto River in Jacksonboro, South Carolina. Wrapped in bacon secured with toothpicks, the roe was placed in the “deep freeze” for 10 to 15 minutes to “firm up.” The wrapped roe is then deep-fried to a golden brown in clean hot oil.

All roe is easier to handle if it is made firm either by chilling or by simmering it for a few minutes in milk or water. To cook the roe, bacon is rendered in a skillet, then removed and drained. The firm roe is added to the hot bacon grease, flat side down, and cooked slowly until golden brown, then turned once to brown the other side briefly. The roe is then served with the reserved bacon, lemon wedges, and parsley.
The roe of other fish may be treated like shad roe. It is delicious scrambled into eggs or mixed with equal parts of fresh pork sausage and baked like a meat loaf. When shad roe is in season, put several of the larger sets of the roe in the freezer for use in these composed dishes; but cook the fine, delicate sets while they are fresh and in season.