Buying fish used to be a pretty simple matter. You sniffed the fish, you examined its eyes and you checked the gills. If the eyes were clear, the flesh didn't stink and the gills were not gooey, you had the fish for supper.
But the other day before buying some shad, I felt compelled to research the background of the fish. I learned about its ecological status, its travel habits and the benefits and risks of eating it. I did more research on this purchase than I had done for some of the papers I had written in graduate school. That probably says more about my career as a student than the state of the nation's fisheries.
Shad is not the star it once was. "This fish, with its flashing silver sides, was worshiped by early Americans," said Doug N. Rader, a scientist with the Environmental Defense and a fan of the fish. "Shad helped Washington and his men get through the winter at Valley Forge."
The American shad, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports, was once the dominant fish of the bay, with annual catches in the early 1900s that exceeded 22,000 metric tons. But overfishing diminished water quality, and construction of dams that blocked the shad's spawning runs caused the population to drop. Shad stocks were in such poor condition that in 1980, Maryland imposed a moratorium on most commercial shad fishing. Recreational shad fishing is catch and release.
"Shad is coming back," Rader told me in a telephone conversation from his Raleigh, N.C., office, "but it is not there yet."
One reason shad stocks are rebounding could be that the number of eaters who crave it is diminishing. That is pretty much what Billy Isaac Martin, who runs Billy Martin's Seafood at Jessup, told me.
"Shad does not sell like it used to," said Martin, 65. He recalled years gone by when he boned hundreds of pounds of shad during the midnight-to-dawn shifts at the old fish market in downtown Baltimore.
"We used to send out trucks loaded with 150 pounds of boned shad," he said. Now, on good days, he sells about 20 pounds. The local appetite for shad does pick up a bit around Easter, he said, when traditional restaurants such as Tio Pepe and the Peppermill put it on their menus.
Two factors - the large number of bones in the fish and the march of time - figure in the shad's drop in popularity, he said.
Boning a shad is a laborious process. "You make 22 cuts on each side of the fish," he said - adding that he once was able to make these cuts in a mere 20 seconds. For the younger generations, though, fish has to be "white, flaky and have no flavor," he said, a description that does not fit shad.
The American shad, Rader said, has high levels of the beneficial omega--3 fatty acids and carries the name Alosa sapidissima, which roughly translates from Latin as "most delicious." It is also largely free of the contaminants like mercury and PCBs that affect some other fish, said George Harman of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Shad spend most of their lives in the ocean, away from the areas where these toxins are frequently found. It is a big-time swimmer, spawning in rivers in the spring, then migrating up the East Coast to the Gulf of Maine. During its life span of five years, the fish reportedly travels as many as 12,000 miles.
Now the commercial catch is small and limited, Rader said. Some shad are categorized as "bycatch," meaning they are hauled in by ocean fishermen looking for something else.
Rader said that while he couldn't recommend eating a lot of shad, he could go along with an occasional meal, a shad-planking feast, that cements "a personal stake in the health of our rivers."
"A meal now and then to help celebrate the shad's past and re-energize its future," he said, could be a smart tactic in the effort to remove obstructions to the shad's spawning runs. "We need to win people over to see the benefits of re-wilding the rivers. One way to do it is to win them over through their taste buds."
The $11-a-pound shad fillet I bought at the Mount Washington Whole Foods had no bones. I sprinkled it with a little salt and pepper, then cooked it quickly on a piece of water-soaked cedar placed over a charcoal fire in my barbecue grill. The shad cooked in minutes. Its taste was a marvelous mixture of sweet flesh and smoke from the cedar. I wondered if Washington had eaten this well on the banks of the Delaware.