Ah Shad, Alosa sapidissima, hidden delicacy of the rivers of Northern Connecticut. Apparently related to the herring, but a bit larger, Shad is the eponymous fish that is central to the annual Shad Bake in the town of North Stonington, Connecticut. I would never have heard of this rather large memorial day party except that it is hosted by my girlfriends roommates family, and thus we were invited to take part in this glorious local tradition, dating back until at least 2003 (likely it is older, but Phil, the adorable 90 year old man with the bow tie that Aviva fell in love with said he was at the first Shad bake in 2003, but he might have meant his first and not the first, he didn't make it clear) The festivities began early that weekend, as Friday night saw me out with Aviva, Adam, Jess and a bunch of friends from work (Aimee, Clarisa, Gene, Kris, Toni and her fiance Jon) at a bar called the Heights. We were out to celebrate Gene becoming a Doctor for the second time, PhD this time, MD the first time. The place was kind of a college hangout for kids from Columbia, I am told the bar is normally packed but as this weekend was memorial day a lot of people had left the city so the place was relatively empty. We were supposed to be hanging out on the roof top deck, but it was quite humid so we ended up on the second floor, enjoying the bar food, especially the wings, and the cheap drinks, particularly the margaritas. On Saturday we lazed around, took a walk over to A&J, the new market I found on Allerton road (grocery stores are a particular interest of mine, as the fruit, veggies and general food products in California kick the shit out of those available in the Bronx). My friend Scooter was kind of passing by for a Bar Mitzvah in New Rochelle so he dropped by for about 20 minutes, then Aviva and I went to hang out with Jess and her friends up in Washington Heights for game night. Catchphrase, karaoke and the random folding paper game that taught us about how Moses could excite random prostitutes with his biblical prowess...
And on Sunday we got up and took off for North Stonington, way out in the Southeastern corner of Connecticut. On the way we stopped at Whole Foods to buy supplies for the mojitos I was supposed to make during the Shad bake. I say supposed to because in Connecticut on Sundays, like in many formerly puritanical areas, no alcohol is sold in Connecticut on Sunday. So, because these states are firmly root back in the time of the teetotalers, I was not able to get the good, silver rum I needed to make fantastic mojitos. And I do make pretty fantastic mojitos, using this simple recipe
Pellegrino (other high quality mineral water works but pellegrino is the best)
Simple sugar flavored with vanilla beans (2 cups sugar to 1 cup water, boil and add 1 sliced vanilla bean while it is cooling)
The proportions depend on the size container you are using, but you combine the ingredients and muddle the limes and mint into the liquid.
Anyway, we didn't get rum (although we did get everything else) and after not getting it we drove up to Kate's. Kate lives in the tiny town of North Stonington, right by Mystic (of Mystic Pizza fame). The town is a movie set, right down to the little red hardware store on the corner of main street. Its very, very, very cute. As we got out of the car and started to walk up the driveway, we saw that Shad was in the house.
This became even clearer as we walked up the driveway. Kate greeted us with a smile and some rhubarb vodka, surprisingly good by the way. We walked up and took a gander at the shad, we had arrived early enough to see it being put up on the boards. The shad are gutted and prepped by being nailed to wooden slates using strips of salt pork. The fish laden wood is then propped up by the fire, where the fish roasts slowly over a few hours. Looking at it after all the fish is up makes it seem like a convocation of fish zombies, possibly meeting to discuss the spheres of control over the rivers in hell
The Shad had all been caught by the members of the SQRSFA, the Saugatuck-Quinnipac Rivers Shad Fishermans Association. This association, which seems to exist principally so the members can wear SQRSFA hats and shirts at the shad bake. Kate's father, quite a character, is a prominent member of this organization, as well as of the Thunder Lizards, an antique vehicles biker gang made up of old dudes tooling around the Stonington area in ancient motorbikes and cars. The shad are caught and prepared by the members of the SQRSFA, who take a great deal of pride and delight in the day.
When we first arrived and started drinking there were maybe 25 people around, so we had time to rapidly get drunk (particularly Aviva, whose tolerance might be able to compete with a vole or other small mammal) and goof around with Kate for a while. But by the time I finished preparing the simple sugar for the mojitos (Kate had black rum, not ideal but it worked) there were more like 150 or 200. Among these folks were an ever increasing number of old, proud SQRSFA and Thunder Lizards (one of whom drove in on an ancient motorbike with a side car), the town royalty (a 99 year old very spry looking woman who held court in a section of the Garden), Kate's just graduated brother, his girlfriend and a number of her cute friends, and a general mix of all types of other North Stoningtonites. We sat down with some beers and watched the crowd grow. Seems like the whole town began to show up ... as I told Kate's boyfriend Phil, this was some real Connecticut shit. After some excellent people watching and drinking, during which we met the aforementioned 90 year old Phil and the bagpiper (who would later bagpipe the shad cake onto the table and who also informed us that the gators that fully uniformed bagpipers wear harken back to their original uniform and have nothing to do with keeping the water out of their boots), I went back inside finished the mojitos (which I then delivered to Kate, Phil, Kate's parents, myself and Aviva) and began to sit down when Kate and her Phil recruited us to a game of lawn bowling. We jumped at the opportunity to hang with Kate, because up until this point she had been a celebrity, looking reporter chic and popular, with everyone wanting to talk with her about her life in the city
Aviva and I were destroying Phil and Kate for a while, owing to my vast experience lawn bowling with the old guys at Balboa park in San Diego, we took a break to get more drinks, watch some more folks and generally get drunker ... all of which we accomplished very efficiently. At this point rhubarb vodka, mojitos, may wine (a sort of light, fruity wine full of strawberries and flowers), box wine and jug wine (you know, like the crappy Franzia we all drank in college trying to be sophisticated) and beer were in abundance, the beer being held in old washing machines full of ice. Women walked around handing out shad roe wrapped in bacon, which was chewy and salty but surprisingly good. A large number of appetizers that I initially took to be the main course came out, vanished within half an hour and were soon replaced by the real meal. Piles of sausages, bacon and of course shad highlighted this course, along with salads and sides of every imaginable description; Greek salad cover with olives and feta, thick Russian salad, Caesar, green vegetable with thick, leafy lettuce, one of those lettuce salads that is trendy and has 9 different kinds of lettuce none of which look like lettuce, Mediterranean, pesto pasta salad with bow tie pasta, creamy pasta (elbows) with sun dried tomatoes, polenta salad, couscous, numerous kinds of rice, some with mint, some with tomatoes, some pilaf style, Asian salads with crunchy noodles, three types of baked beans full of fat bacon chunks, and a variety of chips and such at the start of the table, an area I did not even reach the two times I ventured up to the food as my plates filled up too fast.
Lunch on the lawn, more food on the lawn, no more lawn bowling, people watching, drinking and then it was time for the desert. Aviva, like many people had brought a cake (hers was a carrot cake) but all of them were dwarfed by the shad cake. A full three feet long, the cake shimmered green as white in the sun as it is brought out to the sound of bagpipes to join the rest of the deserts as the piece d' resistance. Following desert, even though I didn't have any as I was too full, I was drunk and full so I wandered over to the other side of the house and set up for a luxurious nap in a hammock filled the rest of the afternoon. Aviva wanted to nap on the hammock with me but being drunk and selfish, I mentioned that we might break it as it was not really set up for two people, so she hung out some more and I dozed. But not for more than 1 hour, after which I got up and drank some more while tossing a Frisbee around with some of Kate's friends and playing with her obscenely adorable niece and nephew.
When we moved back to the party it had thinned out and was getting dark, so our attempts at badminton failed, as it is very difficult to play when you cannot see anything, and we ended up sitting around the fire drinking with a bunch of Kate and her brothers friends, Kate's brother-in-law and cousin Gordon and the shad boards. It quickly became apparent to me (after several abrupt and strange conversations) that having already been drunk and sobered up, I was not in any space to really interact with the largely early 20's crowd who remained, so when the group, who were all rather drunk, got up to install lighting in the trees by the tents and then play flip cup, I went inside read on the couch. Aviva joined me for a while, then got an urge to play flip cup (which she apparently didn't do, I found out later) and then came back inside and slept on me while I read. We finally got to bed around 0130, after saying goodbye to an extremely, in her own words, crunked Kate, and slept very well despite random drunk and other sounds from the nearby tents. Wanting to get back to NY relatively quickly, we got up the next morning and quickly ate the breakfast Kate's mother had laid out and headed back to the city (there was really no traffic and we made excellent time) sadly missing the parade in which Kate's father would be riding down main street in his antique fire engine ...