Planking shad is not the easiest way to cook the fish.
The implements of modern food preparation -- the gas grill, the Teflon skillet, even the microwave -- will do it faster and with a lower probability of third-degree burns.
But planking -- which involves nailing the fish to thick oak boards coated with shortening, propping those boards on racks around a bonfire of logs you have chopped yourself, continually basting with the secret sauce (ingredients include Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, ketchup, mustard and molasses) and waiting for five hours in the middle of the night until the smoke has thoroughly roasted hundreds of pounds of shad -- has been the preferred method for members of Bee Hive Lodge No. 66 for the past 85 years.
And not because it's easy.
"It's no fun. It's work, believe me," said Thomas Butler, 64, of Marbury, who has been a lodge member for 35 years. "You get home the next day, and you are ready to go to bed."
But for those in the Bee Hive Lodge, an African American Masonic organization formed in 1919 in Pomonkey, the annual shad bake is worth the effort. About 6 p.m. the Friday before Memorial Day, the group gathers to begin the preparations. The first round of planking ends after midnight, when the boards are cleaned and the process begins again. By 11 a.m. Saturday, after no sleep and lots of partying by the group, about 800 pounds of shad will be cooked and ready to eat.
The shad bake is the group's largest fundraiser and one of its most important community outings.
"It's a big event," said Derek Caldwell, 43, head of the Bee Hive Lodge. "A lot of older folks from the community come out. They have a good time and get to see old friends."
The Bee Hive Lodge has about 60 members and is one of seven African American Masonic chapters in Maryland, Butler said. The group, which has secret rituals (though members insist it's not a "secret society"), was formed by black men who were not allowed to join the established Free Mason lodges, Caldwell said.
The lodge's two-story white building on Livingston Road was built by the original members. The purpose of the fraternal organization, which meets twice a month, is to "get good men and make them better men," Butler said, by encouraging philanthropy and service to the community.
Most of the members are middle-aged or older, Butler said. He said the younger generations of black men have been difficult to attract.
"We got a lot of older members that are passing on, and you don't get that many young men these days that want to join," he said. "It's very time consuming. Many [young men] are working two jobs because the cost of living has changed. If you look down the road, you hope we're still around."
But for the past 85 years, shad planking has survived. Caldwell says the technique was developed by the Native Americans in Southern Maryland, who caught the shad in the Potomac. They eventually passed on the knowledge to the black community.
In his book about shad, "The Founding Fish," John McPhee cites a history that dates shad planking to Colonial-era Pennsylvania. As the story goes, a member of the fishing and hunting club called the Colony of Schuylkill spontaneously nailed a shad to an old oak rudder before cooking it over live coals.
"As in a reflector oven, the shad baked in radiant heat, its juices migrating this way and that as the rudder was inverted," McPhee writes. "The result was so savory and aromatic that word spread and people combed the city for rudders and centerboards on which to plank shad."
In addition to preparing the fish, the Bee Hive Masons, along with a sister organization, made fried chicken, potato salad, string beans, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, and homemade cakes and pies. By the end of Saturday afternoon, everything was wiped out.
"We never leave with any food left over," Caldwell said. "Even though things are changing, this is a tradition we try to keep going."