The annual Shad Bake in Essex, Connecticut, celebrates a traditional local fish with good food, demonstrations, live music, and (what else?) a huge fire pit.
By Mike Urban
May 29 2018
For 60 years, the Rotary Club of Essex, Connecticut, has been putting on a highly unusual and entertaining annual event. The Essex Shad Bake, held in late spring in the charming Connecticut River town of Essex (this year’s festival takes place on June 2, 2018), celebrates the locally famous fish with a full day of food, drink, live music, and educational presentations.
American shad is a fish species that spends most of its adult life in the salty northern Atlantic Ocean. Shad are anadromous, which means that in the spring they swim up the freshwater rivers along the coast in order to spawn, then they return to the ocean for the rest of the year. Adult shad typically weigh between three and eight pounds and are more than a foot long.
Shad has been described as the “fish that fed the nation’s founders,” as it was a highly popular dish in colonial times. An entire fishing industry came to life each spring along the Connecticut River, with fishermen dragging their nets through the river after dark to ensnare spawning shad by the thousands.
The shad stock has dwindled dramatically in recent years, but many native New Englanders still enjoy the several weeks that shad are available in local seafood markets from early May to mid-June. In addition to the shad fillets, the roe from female shad, a large, liver-like mass, is considered a delicacy among shad aficionados.
The shad bake typically occurs on the first Saturday in June. The one-day event recently moved to the grounds of the Connecticut River Museum, at the foot of Main Street in Essex on the banks of the river.
A large wood-fed fire pit is built in an open field next to the museum. It’s kept blazing for several hours while a small army of volunteers prepares the shad for baking.
Preparations include nailing the shad fillets to rough-hewn oak planks, using common roofing nails. Strips of salt pork are affixed to the top and bottom of each fillet, which adds flavor during the cooking process. Each fillet is seasoned with olive oil, paprika, and other spices.
The planks are then positioned in circular fashion around the scorching fire, and the fillets slowly bake for fifteen to twenty minutes in the searing heat.
When a batch of fillets are ready, a call of “Board!” goes up from one of the Rotarians. The finished shad planks are pulled away one-by-one from the fire and taken to the nail-removal station.
At the nail-removal station, a pneumatic tool normally used by carpenters and roofers pulls out the nails while a Rotarian holds the cooked fillets in place using specially designed spatulas.
The fillets are then whisked away to a nearby open-air tent, where hungry, expectant diners enjoy live music, beer, and wine while awaiting the feast.
While the shad are baking, there are lots of fun things to take in, such as a fascinating demonstration of how to fillet a shad.
The fish has hundreds of small bones, and it’s an increasingly rare skill to be able to fillet shad quickly and efficiently.
You may witness this vanishing skill, as an expert shad deboner holds court at a demonstration table throughout the event.
The best part, of course, is sitting down to a plate of shad, homemade potato salad, a simple tossed green salad, and a slice of locally baked pie, accompanied by a glass of beer or wine. There’s nothing quite like the Essex Shad Bake, and it’s well worth the trip to this charming Connecticut River town to take it all in.
Are you a fan of shad? Have you ever attended a shad bake?
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.