by David Cecelski
Today is Blue Monday, a shad fry that is always held on the Cape Fear River, just below Lock and Dam #2, the day after Easter. I can’t be there this year, but I can dream of it: the crowd gathered on a bluff overlooking the Cape Fear, where the river, a hundred miles from the Atlantic, is still deep and fast; old men and their sons frying fish on big, outdoor cookers; ladies frantically ladling out side dishes. There’s a crowd sitting under the picnic shelter eating and hugging old friends and telling stories.
Blue Monday is held in East Arcadia, a rural community in Bladen County. For half a century, people have gathered there by the second of three old river locks that were built on that stretch of the river between Wilmington and Fayetteville back before the Civil War. There they celebrate the shad’s spawning runs and the beginning of spring.
Shad fishing has always been a way of life there. Coming in late winter and early spring, when pantries often ran low, shad season was a time of bounty and rejoicing. Native peoples relished the delectable, bony fish and slaves once caught them by the ton in giant nets. The last time I was there, I remember standing by the lock and dam with George Graham, a local timber mill worker and river rat, watching the river roar by and the shad fishermen plying their nets while they let their boats drift downriver in that strong current.
George’s dad, a sharecropper who worked winters at a fertilizer factory downriver in Navassa, and his cousin, a man named Chester Graham, started Blue Monday. They made a clearing on the riverbank, filled an old barrel with wood and started a fire and cooked the shad in a frying pan on top of the barrel. At first, it was just family, the Grahams, an African-American family. Then it was their whole neighborhood.
Now it’s everybody. “Anybody come—anybody,” George told me. “Don’t matter what color it is or whatever. They want fish, they can eat.”
The shad come home and local folks come home, too. The native sons and daughters who have moved away plan their trips home to see Momma around Blue Monday. You’ll see plenty of license plates from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC, in the parking lot. Sometimes so many come from Jersey that they rent a bus and make the trip together.
Their way of fixing the shad is holy on the Cape Fear. They fry the fish golden brown and crispy, cook the fish’s roe with scrambled eggs seasoned with fatback, green sage and shallots and serve the fish and the roe together, with coleslaw and cornbread. “It’ll make you lick your fingers,” George told me. “Make you bite your fingers if you aren’t careful.”