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Members of The Rotary Club of Essex season, plank, and bake the shad in front of the fire just as it has been done for hundreds of years. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut River Museum )
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For nearly six decades, the Rotary Club of Essex has maintained the tradition of hosting an annual shad bake at the Connecticut River Museum (CRM). This year’s event is on Saturday, June 3 from 3 to 6 p.m. with tickets now available.
It’s an unusual and unforgettable sight. Seasoned filets of shad are nailed to planks encircling a large fire, settling in for a slow and smoky bake. Rotarian Joseph Shea has been the bake master for the past 20 years.
As bake master, Shea makes arrangements with the fishermen to provide de-boned shad, provides firewood for the large open fire for baking the shad, sets up the cooking prep area, and nails the shad to oak planks.
He also is in charge of timing the bake in order to serve shad dinner for 700 visitors.
The shad is nailed onto oak planks with salt pork and placed in front of the bonfire, where it slowly cooks, picking up flavors from the plank, the salt pork, and the fire. When Shea declares it’s ready, it’s served with potato salad, tossed green salad, and pie. Grilled chicken and hot dogs are also available.
Tickets purchased ahead of time are $30 for adults and $10 for children under 12, same-day purchases are $35 and $15. Beer, wine, and soda, as well as freshly shucked clams and oysters, will also be available for purchase. Proceeds benefit the Rotary Club of Essex and the CRM.
Jennifer White-Dobbs, the education coordinator at the CRM, notes that many people enjoy shad at the shad bake because of the preparation.
“Shad is typically described as oily and heavier, but with this method of cooking, it allows fish to cook slowly, seasoning goes in to give it a great flavor, and allows oils to drain down and away from the fish to make it flakier,” said White-Dobbs. “We are really pleased to be able to be the venue and co-host for the event.”
In addition to enjoying the shad bake, attendees can also explore Connecticut’s Founding Fish, the museum’s feature exhibit that focuses on the history and lifecycle of shad, a fish that helped shape the region. The exhibit shows examples of nets and shad boats, as well as photographs documenting the people and history of the region.
There will also be music, museum tours, stories from shad bakes of the past, programs on the history and traditions of the shad fishery, and the museum’s authentic Connecticut River shad boat, Alva Starr, will be on display.
Before enjoying their dinner, visitors can watch the traditional preparation of the shad as well as boning demonstrations. As there are thousands of bone in shad, de-boning is a critical step in preparing the meal.
“There’s an art to how you do it,” said White-Dobbs. “It’s almost becoming folklore because there are very few people who know how to bone a shad. It’s a tradition that’s fading away.”
In addition to enjoying the history of the event, Shea also thinks the collaboration between the Rotary and the CRM is “fantastic” and a “team effort.” He credits CRM Director Chris Dobbs and Stephen Brinkmann, who handles sponsor development for the Rotary, for their efforts.
“It’s an old time, classic, family afternoon,” said White-Dobbs. “People really look forward to it and we usually sell out so we recommend purchasing your tickets in advance.”
Tickets are available at shop.ctrivermuseum.org, the Centerbrook Package Store, or the Connecticut River Museum. On-site and street parking at the Connecticut River Museum is limited; a free shuttle will run between the museum and the Essex Town Hall parking lot during the shad bake. For more information about the Shad Bake and Rotary Club, visit www.rotaryclubofessex.com.
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