by David Cecelski
This is a photograph of what’s left of the state’s last menhaden factory. It’s on Lennoxville Road in Beaufort and it closed five years ago. The demise of Beaufort Fisheries has left a lot of people inCarteretCounty, including me, with a Christmastime craving that we can’t satisfy any longer. Elsewhere, people probably don’t miss menhaden a bit. The factories turned the silvery little fish, after all, into fish oil, animal feed, and the like, not food.
Here in CarteretCounty though, local residents developed quite a taste for the menhaden’s roe. The hankering for it was something fierce, too. Every year around Christmas, the big momma shad—people here call menhaden “shad” or “pogy”—passed through local waters on their way north. The whole East Coast menhaden fleet would be working out of Beaufort then, including boats from as far away as New Jersey and Georgia. That’s when people here yearned for “shad roe.”
There wasn’t any market for shad roe outsideCarteretCounty. Menhaden fishermen elsewhere might take roe home for their families, but this was the only place in the United States where the taste for the fish’s roe was more general. Local fish markets carried menhaden roe and at least one local restaurant—the Sanitary Fish Market—served it occasionally in the wintertime.
Most local people just went down to a fish factory and got their own shad roe. In the menhaden industry’s heyday, it wasn’t hard to find. There were once 8 or 9 menhaden factories in Beaufort and MoreheadCity. On a Saturday night this time of year, you might find 120 boats, each with upwards of 20 hands, docked in Beaufort. For most of a century, it was the state’s largest saltwater fishery and it was one of the largest fisheries anywhere in the US.
My cousin Edsel recalls “breaking roe” here in the 1930s. (It’s called “breaking roe” because of the way you extract the egg sac from the fish by grasping its head and tail and breaking it nearly in half.) Edsel remembers sitting in the holds of menhaden boats while they waited to unload and breaking roe with crowds of other people. The menhaden factory’s owner didn’t charge anything for the roe—it was free to anybody willing to work a little.
Edsel also recalled how hard it was to get the menhaden’s aroma off him those nights. He’d come home and change clothes and bathe, he said, but his wife, Ida, still had to change the bed sheets the next day.
The most popular way to cook menhaden roe was to roll it in flour with salt and pepper and fry it in grease. Good hot or cold, the roe was a favorite with commercial fishermen and many carried the roe in their pockets for lunch. Other locals scrambled it with eggs for breakfast. However you had it, shad roe was a top-notch meal. It has a rich, salty, and delicately sweet taste that you just can’t find anywhere else.
After Beaufort Fisheries closed its doors, there was no place left to get shad roe in CarteretCounty. The owner sold out, developers bought the property, and waterfront condominiums or something like that will soon replace the old factory. Now there’s no place to get menhaden roe anywhere in the state. A great fishery and a way of life has disappeared and what’s left is this hankering that we all get this time of year for something that we can’t have anymore.
Mrs. Wanda Willis fixed me my last plate of shad roe. That was on HarkersIsland 3 or 4 years ago. She had frozen a batch of roe that had come from Beaufort Fisheries before it closed. At that time, I didn’t know that her shad roe might be the last that I ever tasted, and of course she didn’t know it might be her last either. Now, when we run into one another, Mrs. Willis and I hug and kiss and catch up on one another’s lives. Sooner or later, though, one of us always asks, “Wouldn’t some shad roe be good right now?”
On February 27th, the CoreSoundWaterfowlMuseum andHeritageCenter on HarkersIsland is hosting a conference called “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing.” Spearheaded by local folklorist Barbara Garrity-Blake and funded by the North Carolina Humanities Council, the conference will be a rare opportunity to hear the perspectives of menhaden fishermen, factory workers, and scholars. It’s the culminating event in a pioneering community project that has included the collecting of oral histories, public forums, and work with 7th graders at BeaufortMiddle School. For more information, check out the project’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/pages/Raising-the-Story-of-Menhaden-Fishing/202243064424.