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"We do have fish, but we don't have shad," Grifton Shad Festival secretary Janet Haseley says cheerfully. "We used to have herring, but now we fry commercially raised catfish."
Shad do make a cameo appearance at the 40-year-old festival, which returns to Pitt County this month: In addition to dozens of events punning on shad's name – including Shad-O and a 5K "Spring Shad Run" – the event schedule features a frozen shad toss. "We freeze shad for tossing, and, afterward, we bury them for fertilizer," Haseley says. "Some of the animal people were kind of upset about it, but we think that's a pretty responsible way to do it."
Shad pass by Grifton in March, near the start of their 2,000-plus mile journey to Nova Scotia, where they're feted at late-summer festivals. In an essay devoted to the deliciousness of shad, Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's speculates the intense seasonality of the shad harvest may have hindered the fish's fortunes.
"This is still this thing that is only seasonal," he quotes a friend as saying. "You have to wait til the spring and get the shad and the new lamb." Weinzweig concedes some eaters are put off by shad's three rows of pin bones: A common preparation involves baking the fish until its bones melt.
But most shad fans swear by smoking, the method favored by Native Americans and the Wakefield (Va.) Ruritan Club, which annually hosts a legendary shad planking, scheduled to coincide with shad's return to the James River.
Haseley, who remembers when a county extension agent first proposed a shad festival, says organizers never contemplated serving shad, which she characterizes as "more fun to catch than eat." Townspeople only consented to hosting an event in shad's honor after the mayor reminded them "they don't eat mules at the mule festival," she says. "I've never eaten shad," she adds.