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The figuratively sweet taste of fish eggs a sign of spring [Commentary]

BY JIM KENNEDY, jkennedy@theaegis.com

3:02 PM EDT, March 18, 2013

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I can still remember a particular admonishment from way back when I was a kid and went along on grocery shopping excursions with my mom: "They're not in season."

As kids do, I was apt to ask that just about everything that caught my fancy to be included in the grocery cart. My requests often were for pineapples and coconuts. Sometimes we would end up with one of these exotics, but usually not. Such things are tropical and don't really have a particular season, though they weren't then, and still aren't, part of my family's regular diet, which is the reason we didn't – and still don't – bring a lot of pineapples and coconuts home from the store.

More typically when I was a kid, my head would be turned by a few fruits things that definitely have seasons, including strawberries, cherries, watermelons and a few others.

Increasingly, it is possible to buy certain fruits year-round, thanks to advances in shipping and agricultural technology. Strawberries, for one, can be found at Christmastime or in the heat of late summer. To me, though, these definitely have a season: June. That's when you can get the berries grown in these parts which didn't have to be picked before ripening so as to make it to market red rather than rotten. Still, the off-season fruits available are better than nothing to those of us like my son and me who enjoy strawberries.

So, what got me thinking about this business of what's in season locally as compared to what's available year round is my annual purchase of something that definitely has a season and just can't be had during the rest of the year: shad roe.

Being fish eggs, shad roe isn't something most people are on the lookout for. While you may see big signs that say things like "Local corn available now" or "Maryland crabs here," you'll never see any particularly aggressive advocacy for the purchase of shad roe. Even so, there's enough of a market for it among people like me that it shows up at discriminating grocery store seafood counters and in good seafood shops in these parts. Generally, it becomes available in late February and you can find it as late as April or maybe even early May.

As an aside, I'll point out that it's not particularly strong tasting the way cured fish eggs like caviar are. I like to fry it in butter with salt and pepper and maybe a bit of garlic. It has a very mild fish flavor and a soft texture.

For me, shad roe is as much a flavor of spring as fresh corn on the cob, watermelon or roadside wild wine berries. It's available a good deal earlier, so even though it isn't literally sweet, from a figurative standpoint, getting a taste of it has a kind of sweetness that serves as a prelude to nice weather and good times ahead in the great outdoors.

Now shad roe is a thing that is of interest to a fairly limited market, kind of like the way ramps – a kind of wild onion thing – are to folks in the Potomac Valley of Maryland and West Virginia, but there are plenty of other things that seem to show up from time to time in the grocery store that have their own seasons. Pomegranates come to mind. Though they've increased in popularity and are available for a longer span than they were years ago, eating them is a messy proposition requiring full time and attention, so I can't imagine a scenario where they'll be available year-round.

Clementines and tangerines can be had year-round these days, but mainly they're a winter thing if you want sweet ones. The rest of the year, to me anyway, you're better off just eating lemons in the first place.

Though the trend for decades has been in the direction of having everything available year-round, I've been pleasantly surprised in recent years by the "Buy Local" push for customers to take advantage of the bounty of farms close to where they live. It's a nice trend, and one that makes for more flavorful eating. It's hard to imagine, however, a time in the near future when local produce and keeping strictly to buying in season will become the typical way of shopping.

Still, I've increasingly attuned to it lately in a way I hadn't really thought about since I was a kid and the prospect of sour strawberries prevented my mom from buying them.