"Eat Mo' Shad." The graffiti artist who painted that directive and a bony fish skeleton on the Contentnea Creek Bridge more than 15 years ago didn't know what he was doing for the town of Grifton, N.C. It turned out to be the slogan and symbol for a community excuse for fun and fund-raising, the Grifton Shad Festival.
The promoters are earnest in their efforts to raise money for good works and community projects, but you have to have a sense of humor to call it a festival in the grand sense of the word.
Grifton is on routes 11 and 118, between Kinston and Greenville. The first settlers in the area were Tuscarora Indians. In 1755, the settlement was called Peter's Ferry. In 1764 it became Blount's Ford, and in the 1800s it became Bell's Ferry. Finally, it became Grifton.
At one time the town was divided by Contentnea Creek, which was a busy arterial waterway, but the creek is no longer the Main Street. The town moved away from the water and activity now centers on Queen and McCrae streets. Attractive houses, many with verandas, line the tree-shaded streets. Every spring hickory shad migrate up the Atlantic Coast and return to their spawning places in rivers and creeks like the Contentnea.
Like Atlantic salmon, the shad, which ranges as far north as Nova Scotia, does not die after spawning, but eventually returns to the sea. The presence of shad in a creek or river is a sure sign of spring, and when they are running, fishermen get out their tackle.
Shad fishing in Contentnea Creek has always been a part of Grifton life, so promotion of the familiar hickory shad seemed a natural, and amusing, thing to do. And the townspeople have been doing it successfully for 15 years.
They were at it again April 17 through 21, with everything from a shad run (actually a marathon for people, not shad) to Shad-O (Bingo). Prior to the festival, fishermen began logging their catches of shad in the shad-fishing tournament. Since it is possible that the hickory shad may have made their run and departed before festival time, there is also a bass-fishing tournament.
We won't list all the events, but there is, of course, a shad queen pageant as well as competition for the title of Miss Gizzard Shad. The former is a proper pageant for young women; the latter is a spoof sponsored by the Jaycees. Brave Jaycees dress in beauty-queen regalia and vie for the title. A recent winner listed measurements of 42-38-38. Yes, there is a gizzard shad. It is considered a trash fish, not even useful as bait.
Since veracity is a scarce commodity when fishermen are discussing their exploits, a natural category of entertainment at the shad festival is a liars' contest. It is called, predictably, "fishy tales." Fishermen of all ages are encouraged to stand up and tell their tall tales. One of the winners was an 11-year-old girl, Tracy Roberts, who told of a fish so big it pulled her into the creek.
Other happenings included a parade, art show, craft show, softball and tennis tournaments, horse shoes and a bicycle race. Not to mention canoe races, clogging and square dancing and bluegrass music. It was 90 degrees, but it did not slow down the Buck Swamp Kickin' Cloggers or the barbershop quartets.
The Grifton shad festival is, figuratively and literally, a fine kettle of fish. For what is a festival without food, and what would a festival celebrating a fish be without fish to eat? The folks running the shad festival know this, but they also know the shad is one of the boniest fish imaginable and quantities sufficient to feed large crowds are iffy.
All things considered, then, when the shad festival puts on its fish fry, the organizers serve herring. The local rescue squad handles the fish fry. So Bob Barwick was a mighty busy man. He arose early and drove up to the Chowan River in Virginia where he bought 700 pounds of herring for the Saturday fish fry, and got back to Grifton in time for the big cookout in the town center.
A large cooker roughly the size of a horse trough was filled with hot oil. The fresh herring were rolled in cornmeal, then dropped in the hot oil until golden brown. Barwick and other members of the group fried pounds and pounds of fish and hush puppies. For $3, festival-goers could buy a plate heaped with fish, hush puppies and coleslaw. Or, they could step over to where the traditional fish stew, prepared by members of the Grifton Fire Department, was bubbling.
Later in the day, the tents provided cover for a team of workers from King's Barbecue of Kinston. With so much good food and festivity, is there any wonder that, later on, there was dancing in the streets? Eat Mo' Shad. GRIFTON SHAD FESTIVAL FISH STEW (12 servings)
This is the recipe used for the annual Grifton Shad Festival fish stew each April. Any kind of fish can be used, but rockfish is less bony than shad. Shad makes an extremely tasty stew, but many people do not like to pick out so many bones.
Stew can be cooked indoors, in an ordinary pot, or outdoors in an iron pot over a gas burner. It's good either way.
Ingredients are seldom measured, and seasonings are added according to taste. More or less of each ingredient can be used.
1/2 pound fatback (salt pork) or slab bacon
5 pounds onions, peeled and sliced
5 pounds white potatoes, peeled and sliced
4 pounds any firm fish (such as shad, striped bass, puppy drum), cut in 2-inch pieces, crossways through the backbone
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
10 3/4-ounce can tomato soup
Hush puppies and slaw for serving
Put fatback or bacon in bottom of pot and fry until crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Leave grease in pot and remove fried meat. (Optional: leave fried meat in pot.) Add onions, potatoes and fish, layering them beginning with a portion of onions, a portion of potatoes and a portion of fish; repeat until all are used up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper as you add ingredients to pot. Bring mixture to a boil, lower heat to medium and cook about 1 1/2 hours. Do not stir, as this will break fish into small pieces. Shake the pot from time to time to keep stew from sticking to bottom. About 20 minutes before stew is done, add tomato soup and red pepper and carefully crack the eggs into the stew without breaking yolks. Allow eggs to cook in the liquid until the yolks are hard-cooked. Plan about 1 egg per person, or more eggs, as this is very popular and a distinguishing ingredient of eastern North Carolina Fish Stew. Add more red pepper if you prefer. Serve with hush puppies and slaw. MACON QUINERLEY'S BAKED SHAD WITHOUT BONES (Festival Recipe) (4 to 6 servings)
Removing bones from shad before cooking is a difficult job. Shad baked from this recipe can be eaten, bones and all, because the bones will dissolve during baking.
1 whole shad (3 pounds or larger)
2 tablespoons vinegar
4 slices bacon
3 to 4 onions, peeled and sliced
4 to 6 medium white potatoes, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut gashes about 1/4-inch apart along both sides of whole, dressed shad. Place shad on large piece of aluminum foil. Sprinkle vinegar on fish. Place bacon slices on top of fish. Surround fish with sliced onions and sliced potatoes. Sprinkle all with salt and pepper to taste. Fold and seal aluminum foil and place in baking pan. Bake 6 hours in a 300-degree oven. (All the little bones will crumble and everything can be eaten except the backbone.) EASTERN NORTH CAROLINA FISH FRY (Festival Recipe) (4 servings)
48 ounces oil
1 to 2 fish per person (such as herring or perch)
3 cups cornmeal
Salt and pepper to taste
Hush puppies and slaw for serving
Use iron pot and gas burner to fry fish outdoors. Fill pot with 48 ounces of cooking oil. Heat until oil sizzles when a piece of food is dropped in.
For small fish such as herring or hickory shad, cut closely spaced gashes along both sides of the fish, about 1/4-inch apart.
For larger fish such as American shad, cut crossways through backbone into pieces about 3 or 4 inches long.
Put cornmeal, salt and pepper in bag, add fish, and shake to coat. Drop fish in hot oil and cook about 10 minutes or until fish floats. Scoop fish out with slotted spoon or fresh fry basket. Serve with hush puppies and slaw. SHAD ROE (1 to 2 servings)
1 large pair shad roe
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
Dash of black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
Place shad roe in frying pan. Add water, salt and pepper. Cover and cook slowly for about 10 minutes, or until all water is gone. Uncover, add butter and slowly brown roe (about 10 minutes more). PLANKED, STUFFED FISH (6 servings)
Vegetable oil for plank or dish
3-pound fish, dressed (shad, striped bass, snapper)
Lemon-pepper seasoning to taste
4 strips bacon
1/2 pound fresh crab meat, picked over
1/4 to 1/2 cup light cream
6 large mushrooms, chopped finely
Seasoned, hot, cooked rice or mashed potatoes for serving
Seasoned, hot, cooked vegetables (such as broccoli, asparagus, corn on the cob, carrots) for serving
Ripe cherry tomatoes for garnish
Grease a very clean wood plank (large enough to hold the fish) and place in a moderate oven. Keep plank warm. Less adventurous cooks may use a greased oven-to-table dish.
Wash and dry fish thoroughly. Sprinkle the inside of the fish with lemon-pepper seasoning. Lay 2 strips of bacon on the hot, greased plank or dish. Place the fish across the bacon on the plank. Mix crab meat with cream and mushrooms. Stuff fish with the crab meat mixture and close the edges loosely with aluminum foil. Place remaining 2 strips of bacon on top of fish.
Bake fish at 350 degrees until done, about 45 to 60 minutes. Fish is done when it flakes easily when tested with a fork. When fish is done, surround it with rice or potatoes and other hot, cooked vegetables. Garnish with cherry tomatoes. Serve at once. SHAD ROE IN LEMON-CHIVE BUTTER (2 servings)
2 pair shad roe
1 cup milk
Flour for dredging
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon dry white wine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Lemon wedges for garnish
Soak shad roe in milk for 10 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Dredge roe in flour and lightly brush off excess.
In a 12-inch frying pan, heat 4 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon oil. Saute' floured roe until golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes per side. Remove from pan and keep warm.
Add wine to butter in pan and heat, scraping pan. Add chives and remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Heat until butter is golden brown. Stir in lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, and pour over shad roe.
Garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.