It’s spring, so I can eat fresh alewife roe and milt for breakfast! This seasonal treat means winter is over, and many more ultra-fresh fish will be on the menu for many months to come.
The alewife have been arriving in early spring along the East Coast of the United States for thousands of years. This smallish herring fish, seldom a pound in weight or a foot in length, has always been a source of wonder and nourishment. The Native Peoples were grateful for fresh, oily fish to end the tedium of smoked dried fish, venison and oysters. The bulging roe (ovary) and milt (teste), loaded with thousands of fine eggs and millions of sperm, were a potent winter’s end natural gift of vitamins, minerals, fat and protein. And these fish appeared by the hundreds of thousands as they exchanged their salt water life for a breeding interlude in sheltered fresh water streams and ponds, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to North Carolina. Believe it or not, the alewife still arrives in the Hamptons.
We are not the only animals waiting for these fish. Herons, osprey, swans, sea gulls, crows, muskrats, opossums, and yes, rats, eagerly take advantage of this gift of Nature.
A Gift Worth Protecting
I have personally indulged in this spring feast for twenty-five years, so it is very real to me. There are times when I am alone with the fish, and can quickly catch twenty or thirty fish with my dip net, a traditional way to catch them at this time of year. At other times there may be many people or fewer fish, and it’s difficult to catch even two or three. Once I witnessed thousands of fish, shoulder to shoulder, pushing and writhing to get into the freshwater stream through a narrowing, with many fish pushed onto dry land.
Sadly, this quantity is now rare; I haven’t seen so many in twenty years. The sheer number of fish available, for free as a “commons” to be used by everyone, gives the false idea that there will always be these multitudes for ever and ever. We once thought that way about the American bison and the wild salmon of the Pacific. The Trustees of Southampton have rules about sharing these fish but people can easily break these rules. The NY State DEC is impotent because the alewife is not considered a game fish, and they only regulate game fish. The local police say the only violations for these greedy harvesters would be for littering. I have seen people with more than one thousand fish for a night’s work, and they may have used nets strung across the neck of the stream, preventing even one fish from entering the breeding grounds. If no fish return to fresh water to spawn, how will we get the next generation? These fish, like salmon, only return to the stream of their birth, following the scents of their nursery waters.
Enjoying the Alewife
The alewife “run” can last a couple of months. When my children were young and we lived in Manhattan, they were excited to join me in this harvest. One time we took our very fresh fish to the beach where we started a small fire in the lee of a dune and roasted alewife on wooden skewers. It was cold and we were hungry and enjoyed this fish, though we needed to pick out the long thin bones. The flesh of the alewife, as with most other herring species, is delicious. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington both enjoyed feasting on the spring run of a larger herring, the American Shad.
The alewife has to be cleaned carefully if the roe and milt are to stay intact. This is the work the hunter-gatherer has to do to enjoy Nature’s food first hand. These generative organs are the first target for the fish cleaner, and I keep a small bowl for them. I slit the belly from the anal pore to the ribs and tease out the yellow row and white milt, rinsing them in cold spring water, and adding them to the bowl. Next, I easily scrape off the iridescent scales and place them in another bowl, which makes final clean-up easier. Then I filet the fish with a sharp thin knife, flip to the other side for the other filet, then toss the skeleton with head attached into a bucket for eventual disposal. My best speed for this whole process is three minutes, so if I have twenty fish I will be working rapidly for one hour. Thirty fish equals one and one-half hours, and so on.
But at the end of this work I will have a significant amount of fish and fish organs, maybe five or ten pounds total. And I get a reward too, as I get to eat the roe and milt and scraps of filets that I was simultaneously cooking in the oven with sea salt and fresh water: a fisherman’s breakfast with hot coffee and crispy baguette.
When people ask me how I prepare this bounty I always think of the scene in Forrest Gump when his shrimping partner describes all the ways to cook and eat shrimp, ending with “shrimp sandwich.” Some of my favorite ways to prepare the alewife are fry ‘em, bake ‘em, pickle ‘em, chop ‘em, and even use some as bait. The roe and milt can be lightly fried or baked. Hard frying, which blackens the outside of the filets, makes the fine bones easy to eat, crunchy. With regular frying you have to be careful of bones and not just wolf it down. Children should not eat this fish without an adult to separate the bones for them so that they can enjoy this treat.
Pickling is an art, with the right balance of water, sea salt, spices, onions, garlic and vinegar. I often don’t wait more than one hour before sampling the thinner pieces, which get “cured” quicker, but they’re great the next day and the day after. They’re usually all consumed by friends and family within a couple of days. You can’t be afraid to use the sea salt liberally since pickled foods are supposed to be salty to aid their preservation. Pickled alewife goes great with fresh bread, potatoes, rice or pasta. I like a cold dark beer with them but others prefer wine.
However you prepare them, consume the alewife with the knowledge that you are eating a traditional and sacred food.
The alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) is a species of herring, a relative of the larger shad. They are anadromous fish, that is, they move between fresh and salt water during their life cycle, but not to breed, like salmon. There are also landlocked forms called sawbelly or mooneye. The front of the body is deep and larger than other fish found in the same waters, and its common name is said to come from comparison with a corpulent female tavernkeeper (“ale-wife”). In Atlantic Canada it is known as the gaspereau. In southwestern Nova Scotia, it is called a kiack (or kyack). In the Southeast U.S., when sold and used as bait, the fish is often referred to as “LY”. This fish has, in the past, been used as a baitfish for the lobster fishing industry. It is also used for human consumption, usually smoked. It is caught (during its migration up stream) using large dip nets to scoop the fish out of shallow, constricted areas on its migratory streams and rivers.
In the North American Great Lakes alewives are perhaps best known for their invasion of the Great Lakes by using the Welland Canal to bypass Niagara Falls. Alewives colonized the Great Lakes and became abundant mostly in lakes Huron and Michigan. They reached their peak abundance by the 1950s and 1960s. Alewives grew in number unchecked because of the lack of a top predator in the lakes (lake trout were essentially wiped out around the same time by overfishing and the invasion of the Atlantic sea lamprey). For a time, alewives, which often exhibit seasonal die offs, washed up in windrows on the shorelines of the Great Lakes. Their control was the impetus for the introduction of various Pacific salmon species (first coho, and later the chinook salmon) to act as predators on them. This caused the development of a salmon/alewife fish community, popular with many sport anglers. Alewives, however, have been implicated in the decline of many native Great Lakes species through competition and predation. Source: Wikipedia
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2009.