- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

Like tulips and taxes, azaleas and Augusta, the rare delicacy comes just once a year.

But unlike those flowery harbingers of spring, shad roe would never be part of a beauty contest. Definitely an acquired taste, it resembles a brain when uncooked — slimy, pink and covered in a membrane.

“I was 14 when I first ate it,” said Jean Oseth, 86, sipping a gin martini and tucking into a plate of shad roe with toast points and bacon at a local restaurant Friday night. “I’ve been eating it steadily ever since. We would even have it for breakfast. The worst was when I tried to make it for the first time. It was just inedible.”

She sampled the shad roe, the eggs of the shad fish, which spawns upstream every spring, and smiled. “It’s an inherited taste.”

Like Marcel Proust’s madeleines, shad roe sparks floods of sweet memories: Southern cooking, sweet tea and corn biscuits, and sipping mint juleps on the front porch swing.

“It’s very old-fashioned,” said Mrs. Oseth, a Navy widow whose parents were Southerners. “And the fact that it’s only available for one month each year makes it special.”

She was dining with her friend, Frances Seeger, at R.T.’s restaurant on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria on Friday night. She called six restaurants to see whether they had shad roe on the menu and found only two. The dish actually was not on R.T.’s menu, but the restaurant managed to get a few “sets” as the twin roes are called, and the dish was priced at $21.95.

“I was given it as a child and didn’t like it,” said Mrs. Seeger, an artist. “But my father loved it. It reminds me of all things that gentle Southerners love. And it means spring.”

Immortalized by Cole Porter in his 1928 song “Let’s Fall in Love,” shad roe has joined sweetbreads and sidecars as primarily a vintage victual. “Why ask if shad do it? Waiter bring me shad roe,” Mr. Porter sang.

It was said to be screenwriter Nunnally Johnson’s favorite dish. The Stork Club, Manhattan’s famed nightclub beloved by the 1930s cafe society, served it broiled with bacon for $4.75. That’s $4.75 in Depression-era money.

“A lot of the older generation are dying off,” said Bobby Moore, manager of Cannon’s Seafood in Georgetown. “The younger generation don’t really know it. You don’t see a lot of 20- or 30-year-olds eating it.”

Mr. Moore said the popularity of the dish has declined in recent years. He doesn’t sell nearly as much as he did in the past. Washington restaurants and private clubs, where shad roe once was a staple on the spring menu, are no longer ordering it.

Gourmets say chefs have to know how to cook it: sauteed quickly with butter and always served with crisp bacon strips, toast points and maybe a pat of anchovy butter.

“It’s the kind of thing that people who know it, love it,” said chef Jamie Leeds, who owns the hip Hank’s Oyster Bar near Dupont Circle. Miss Leeds has it on the menu for “a few dedicated shad roe lovers,” but she says it’s not an easy sell.

“It’s the texture. It’s kind of like eating liver,” she notes.

She gets the grainy eggs, which she pan-sears with white wine, from a Chesapeake Bay supplier, and it will be off the menu once the shad move north.

American shad, an oily, silvery fish, enter freshwater in the spring to spawn. After spreading their eggs, adult shad return to the sea and migrate north to the Gulf of Maine. George Washington was a prominent shad fisherman on the Potomac River, and served the shad roe at Mount Vernon. Local fishermen still catch shad, but few know how to artfully remove the roe.

Shad is also grilled on planks, but it is the roe that aficionados crave as the weather warms and the days lengthen. Speciality markets such as Whole Foods and Balducci’s also carry shad roe. But the season ends in a few weeks and who knows who eventually will remember the mild-tasting delicacy. Food, after all, is an emotional, comforting link from childhood.

“It’s definitely nostalgic,” said Cannon’s Mr. Moore.

On Maine Avenue, where such seafood as the in-vogue Chilean sea bass and tilapia are piled high under chipped ice on boats, Matt Linton, salesman for Pruitt’s Seafood, said he sells shad roe in the spring, but doesn’t eat it himself.

“A lot of older people really enjoy it,” he said. “Personally, I’m not too high on it.”

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