The species name of the American shad, Connecticut’s state fish, is sapidissima, meaning “delicious.”
“In 1867, Thomas De Voe noted in “The Market Assistant, Containing a Brief Description of Every Article of Human Food Sold in the Public Markets of the Cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn” that the American shad “a well known fish is a general favorite among all classes of persons, as its flesh is considered among the best, sweetest, the most delicate, as well as being the most plentiful in season. Nothing but its numerous bones can be said against it.”
George Washington loved to eat shad. From Philadelphia we find him writing to his manager about a fish merchant’s offer; “I am at this moment paying six shillings apiece for every shad that I buy.” Back at Mount Vernon, he usually tried to get twelve shillings for every hundred shad he sold. In Philadelphia, he was buying shad prepared for the table, and six shillings would be worth approximately $30 today. George was frugal, and his spending such a sum shows his acclaim for the fish.
George Washington grew up eating shad and could deal with the bones. However, the bones of the shad do present a problem for those just learning about this delicious fish. How do you deal with 769 bones, most of which are small “Y” shaped bones which are found in shad where most fish fillets would be bone-free? Shad can be de-boned, oddly termed “boning,” but removal of these “y” bones from shad is a real skill, if not art, indeed, some boning methods are closely guarded secrets. Count yourself lucky if you know a market which sells boned shad.
The boney nature of the shad became part of Indian legend. “Tatamaho” was the Algonquin name for the American shad. According to legend, an unhappy porcupine asked the Great Spirit to change it into another form. The Great Spirit’s wisdom was to turn the porcupine inside out as a fish (the shad) that would forever have to swim and make the long journey to the sea and back to spawn . Tatamaho roughly translates to “inside-out porcupine.” Anyone who has ever eaten this highly esteemed fish with 769 bones understands the meaning. But those who prize this fish are not put off by the bones.
Shad were important but seasonal components of native people’s diets. Arriving at the time of year when food stocks were at their lowest, shad and river herring were more than welcome treats, they were often life savers.”
A COMPILATION OF HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE NATURAL HISTORY AND ABUNDANCE OF AMERICAN SHAD AND OTHER HERRING IN THE POTOMAC RIVER by Jim Cummins, The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin 03/2012