Fresh River Herring Roe

December 07, 2017
By Holly Jennings

Fresh river herring roe

Fresh river herring roe. Now that is a Christmas gift to satisfy even the most jaded food lover. It’s available in a small can, the perfect size for a Christmas stocking, and there’s no need to wrap it—it’s quaint vintage-looking label is part of its charm. As an added bonus, it comes with plenty of built-in Christian symbiology, being a fish product, for those who care about such things.

 

Fresh river herring roe is perfect for the food lover who wearies of fads and romanticizes the diversity of America’s eating past. It’s also perfect for anyone who enjoys word play: Canned fresh river herring roe . . .  how can it be “fresh” and “canned” at the same time? It’s not an oxymoron, or worse a marketing ploy to convince you that what you’re getting is “fresh,” though “canned.” Here, the word fresh refers to the type of herring from which the roe is harvested: Once a year, in the springtime, fresh river herring leave their marine home to return to the very same river where they were born, traveling up, up, up until they reach the river’s head and can find a suitably gentle spot—in science speak a “low-flow” area—to securely lay their eggs, and repeat the cycle.

 

My guess is that the food lover in your life will not have heard of fresh river herring roe, canned or otherwise. Even in Virginia, a one-time hotbed of fresh river herring roe consumption, not many people eat it anymore. Those who do generally have sixty years or more of life behind them and grew in the mid- and South Atlantic states. I am not writing this story for them because they already know what to do with it when they run across a can of it. I am writing this story for the rest of us, who could easily go a lifetime without hearing of, running across, or eating fresh river herring roe.

 

Yet this food—the fish itself or the roe or both—was, from Colonial times and up and until not that long ago, a commonly known and enjoyed food.

 

Back in the day, prior to the invention of canning, enjoying roe would have been a once-a-year delicacy, available in the early spring when the fish swam up river, from the ocean, to lay its eggs. The fish itself would eaten fresh, as well, or salted to be preserved for later. For people living along the rivers, river herring and shad were one of the first pleasures of spring eating.

 

With canning, the roe became available year-round. I suppose, back in the last century, it’s possible that the year’s supply of canned roe may have sometimes ran out before the fish once again swam up river in the spring, reminding everyone that though canned, roe is a high seasonal food. But I doubt it; the supply was just too plentiful.

 

But that is exactly what happens today. With just one company remaining that cans the roe and only one remaining mid-Atlantic or Southern state that permits fishing of fresh river herring, supply is tight and its future as an edible commodity in peril. That company is Cowart Seafood of Lottsburg, Virginia, and the state where is can still be fished, for now anyway, is South Carolina.

 

Lake Cowart, owner and president of Lake Packing Co., said that canned roe used to be so common and inexpensive that it was at the top of the list of popular cheap eats in Virginia and neighboring Maryland and North Carolina and was a staple food for the working classes. Today the cans are half the size they used to be and several times more expensive.

 

Their cost explains why when I first saw cans of the roe, in Cross Bros. Grocery in downtown Ashland, Virginia, they were under lock and key in a glass case, next to the packs of cigarettes. The security was no doubt mainly to keep minors’ hands off of the tobacco, because no minor would have interest in nabbing a can of fresh river herring roe for themselves, unless it were to go into a black-market scheme selling roe to grandparents.

 

Canned herring roe under lock and key at Cross Bros. Grocery, holiday season, 2016

 

Cross Bros. Grocery is an old-fashioned market catering to old-fashioned tastes. When it’s available, the owners like to stock canned fresh river herring roe for their older and loyal clientele, but the supply is inconsistent and varies from year to year. That is why on the day we visited the store there was a handwritten sign that announced, “We have Herring Roe” taped to the front door. I hadn’t noticed the sign when we walked into the store, but once inside, I did notice the small cans of roe—who wouldn’t have been intrigued by their unique shelving spot, regional-sounding brand names (“Tidewater” and “Chowan’s Best”), and anachronistic label designs showing a plate of small cakes or croquettes abundantly garnished with curly parsley. Their small stickers with a high price also caught my eye.

 

 

 

The 105-year-long history of Cross Bros. easily intersects a time when canned river herring roe was a common, inexpensive food. A 1967 newspaper coupon section for the grocery store, pinned to a back wall of the store along with other memorabilia advertises two 16-ounce cans of roe $1.00. This past holiday season, when I made my “discovery” at Cross Bros., an 8-ounce can of Tidewater went for $11.59. The Chowan’s Best brand was slightly less expensive option at $8. 79 a can. This holiday season Chowan’s Best is priced at $10.99; they’re all out of the Tidewater brand.

 

With the ulterior motive of learning how to prepare the roe, I asked Cathy Waldorp, then one of the store owners, if she eats the roe. “Not anymore, not at $10 or $11 a can!” In her early sixties now, she grew up eating roe cakes, prepared by her mother. Except to say that there was some egg and flour or meal mixed with the roe, Cathy couldn’t recall exactly how her mother made the cakes. But she could recall how inexpensive it used to be and can’t stomach paying the current price.

 

Today’s price doesn’t scare everyone off though. Not unlike cigarettes, canned herring roe is considered a must-have product among its devotees, and they’re willing to pay most any price for it. In fact, some of their older customers, she said, will buy out their entire supply. It makes you wonder who or what will go first—the dwindling market for the roe or the supply itself.

 

The cashier, who looked to be in her thirties, said she’s never eaten the roe herself, but suggested I scramble it with some eggs for breakfast. “That’s how most people eat it,” she said. “Six eggs to half a can,” she added.

 

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Lake Cowart loves fresh river herring roe so much that he eats it directly from the can.

 

“I think it’s delicious that way,” he said, during phone chat, early in the year. “Some people may not care for it that way, but over the years I developed a taste for it straight from the can.”

 

Lake Packing Co. packs river herring roe under the Tidewater label, an old Virginia brand which has been around, Cowart estimates, for about 100 years; he purchased the label about 12 years ago.  Lake Packing Co. also co-packs roe under the Chowan’s Best label, an old North Carolina label named for the Chowan River.

 

I called Lake Cowart not just to find out about herring roe and the Tidewater and Chowan’s Best brands, but also to get detailed instructions for preparing the roe. I was having trouble finding recipes online or in books. I hoped to get my hands on the official Tidewater brand recipe for the cakes, the ones pictured on the charming label. No such luck.

 

“There’s one on the label, isn’t there?,” he said. And then a moment later, after having clearly turned the can about in his hand, answered his own question. “No, I guess there’s not.”

 

Cowart’s assumption wasn’t misplaced; before nutritional facts and bar codes forced their way into label designs, forcing out nonessential niceties like recipes, the label would have included one. I found at least two examples online of competing, now-extinct brands from back in the day with recipes printed on their labels. Unfortunately, the images are small and the recipes too difficult to read.

 

 

Though roe cakes are what was, and still is, illustrated on cans of herring roe—probably because they’re prettier than an amorphous mass of eggs—it’s the simpler dish of scrambled roe and eggs, eaten for breakfast, that seems to have been the most common preparation. Cowart said he grew up eating the roe scrambled, not as cakes; so, though he could walk me through the basics of scrambling them and tell me what he feels is the ideal ratio of egg to roe (1 egg to one 8-ounce can), he couldn’t tell me how to make the cakes.

 

Though Lake Cowart was perfectly polite and patient when answering my many questions about how to prepare the roe (including the most embarrassingly basic, such as “Do you drain off the liquid in the can?”), it was clear that he doesn’t get too many calls, maybe none, about what to do with what’s inside the can.

 

“Most of the people who eat this product have been eating it for years, and they know what to do with it,” he said. “So, there’s not a lot of information out there telling the consumer how to consume it. We haven’t worked hard to increase the market beyond our traditional market, or promote its consumption with recipes, because we don’t have the product to supply it.”

 

His company does get lots of phone calls or emails, however, from people looking to buy canned fresh river herring roe who can’t find it in retail stores near them. (If you live in a state other than Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, or North Carolina, it’s a near certainty you’re not going to find it on a grocery store shelf.) Lake Packing Co. will ship the roe directly to customers, if he has the stock.

 

When we spoke in mid-January of this year, he’d just sold out of the 2016’s catch, which translated to 300 cases of roe. At that time, he said he wouldn’t have more until the spring, when the herring return to the rivers to spawn, assuming all goes well. When I checked back in with Lake Cowart, a few days ago, he told me that 2017’s catch was even smaller than the year prior: 200 cases total. Compare that, he said, with the amount they canned annually in the mid-eighties through the early nineties: 6,000 to 9,000 cases. And, he added, they weren’t the only company canning herring roe at the time; there were at least two others, that he knew of. Not surprisingly, he is already out of the 2017 catch.

 

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I can forgive Lake Cowart for not having a roe cake recipe on hand to share with me. As the sole remaining American packer of fresh river herring roe, he is doing the important work keeping a highly regional and traditional food from disappearing completely. That makes him a hero.

 

Still, I was disappointed. By all rights, I have no rights to be nostalgic for fresh river herring roe, but I am. Even before opening my first can and giving it a try, just on principle, I was nostalgic for it. Eating fresh river herring roe, I decided, is like slipping through a time portal. For now, the door is still open, but just a crack.

 

The information on preparing river herring roe is so scarce, that if the fish were to disappear from our rivers tomorrow, if would almost be as if the food had never existed, even though it is described as once being very common. I did find a tantalizing reference to the popularity of canned river herring roe in the lesser-known 1941 title Look Before You Cook: A Consumers Kitchen Guide. The authors, Rose and Bob Brown, two of a once well-known author trio Cora, Rose, and Bob Brown, give guidance on herring roe in the “Canned Goods” section of their book:

 

“Herring Roe, the delicacy that ranks in popularity with shad roe (which also comes in cans), is not so expensive as most fish eggs and its economy can be stretched out with eggs in appetizing recipes printed on the label.”

 

Other cookbooks from the forties referencing canned herring roe have recipes for fish roe, if not herring roe specifically.

 

After searching online and looking in at least thirty old or classic cookbooks, many of them focusing on the foods of Virginia and many in the collection of the Library of Virginia, I’d found a total of two recipes using canned river herring roe, both for the scrambled preparation. (Recipes for preparing shad roe, on the other hand, though not nearly as popular as it once was, are much easier to find than the more regionally localized herring roe.)

 

I feared my trail would go cold. Herring roe was turning out to be a cliquish “who-you-know” food; if you know a Virginian who knows a Virginian who knows how to prepare canned river herring ore, you’re in luck. (In hindsight, a visit to a nursing home, with a can of roe in one hand and a notepad in the other, probably would have rendered results.) Perhaps it’s because canned herring roe was so common, and so regional, that, in a time when basic cooking skills were assumed and passed down mother to daughter, published recipes for how to prepare it are nonexistent, or seemed to be.

 

I didn’t give up. I returned to the Library of Virginia, which is known for its large Virginia-focused cookbook collection, and in particular community cookbooks. The latter turned out to be my windfall. In a thin, leather-bound, twenties-era community cookbook, titled The League Cook Book and compiled by the Ladies of the School and Civic League of Crewe, Virginia, I found seven recipes for using canned herring roe. The Crewe ladies had clearly been resourceful in finding sources of funding for their publication: strategically located among the recipes for Tidewater roe, is a half-page ad for Tidewater brand herring roe. Among the recipes for roe was one for croquettes and one for potato cakes. Armed with what I was after, it was time to open my cans of roe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The day that I discovered river herring roe began portentously: At the Bass Pro Shop in Ashland, Virginia, staring face to face with a humongous fish that nearly outsized its two-story tank. Its grotesque size was unsettling, as if something was not right in the natural order of things; yet its slow, lumbering movements, weightless and astronaut-like, were mesmerizing, and oddly quieting in the hub-bub of holiday shoppers.

 

As I stood there transfixed, the caretaker of the fish told the crowd about the 23,000-gallon aquarium and the fish it contained. The monster-truck-size fish, he said, is a record-setting, 100-pound-plus blue catfish, caught in Virginia. It is estimated to be forty or fifty years old.

 

The blue catfish, I would learn later, was introduced to Virginia waters in the 1970s as a recreational game fish. Initially a boon to fisherman, this new species, a veritable eating machine, quickly upset the balance of predator and prey in Virginia waters. It became one of several factors in the “perfect storm” that has led to the fresh river herring’s dramatically dwindling population. One by one, beginning in 2002, states up and down the East Coast have put moratoria on fishing it, commercially and recreationally. Virginia’s full moratorium on fishing river herring began in 2012 (a partial ban had been in place since 2007).

 

Something just had to be done. “The feeling was don’t kick the species when it’s down,” explained Joe Cimino, during a telephone chat this spring.

 

I called up Joe Cimino, the Deputy Chief of Fisheries Management in Virginia, to learn why the river herring is threatened. The answer he gave me is that it’s hard to say why, as of yet anyway, because the scientific data recording on the fish in Virginia began only since the fishing moratorium went into place. The reasons, he explained, will no doubt be multiple: water quality, off shore fishing of adult herring, imbalance of predators, and urban run-off. The latter problem, I sensed, was the weightiest to him—the one that would be the most complex and complicated to resolve. It’s one thing to fix issues in the waterways themselves; it’s quite another to effect what people do on the land near our water ways.

 

“Clearly,” he said, “It’s going to take more than a moratorium on fishing river herring to improve its population.”

 

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River herring is one of the first fishes to spawn, even ahead of shad, and its yearly journey inland gave Virginians something fresh to eat when the provisions of cured meats and root vegetables from the fall had started to thin, and the body tire of heavier foods. According to the Larousse Gastronomique, when caught after spawning, “the herring is said to be ‘spent’: it is only half the weight and flesh is dried.” People living along the rivers would have known this—that it’s right before they lay their eggs, when their sacks are full of roe, that when their flesh is most succulent and fatty. And of course, it is before they lay their eggs that you want to catch them for harvesting roe, as well. (Lake Cowart said the prime time is a week or two before they lay their eggs.)

 

One early spring day, nostalgic for the centuries-long tradition of a river herring-rite-of-spring, I got caught in an unusually heavy downpour, following a spate of unusually warm days. I had just exited the freeway in downtown Richmond, when the deluge began in full force. Turning left, I headed uphill on 7th Street, which had become an impromptu river bed. A torrential flow of water sped unimpeded past my tires, grabbing cups and bags and other debris in its rapid, asphalt-lined course toward the James River.

 

I immediately visualized the next generation of the small, once mighty, fresh river herring—the same fish that fed Washington, that fed the revolutionary War troops—being flushed away, in a blink of an eye, by the sudden gush of water.

 

The spring prior, being witness to urban run-off and its efficient street cleaning service would have been enough to put me into a state of melancholy reflection, let alone the thought of herring roe eggs being blasted hither and yon. Am I contributing to the river herring’s ill health by publishing this story, and in particular by promoting the roe as the perfect stocking stuffer? If we eat the delicate pin-point-sized eggs that would otherwise turn into herring, aren’t we adding to the problem?

 

In theory yes, but this time, with this product, nature has thrown a mirror up, and set her limits. Then I realized, with relief, that since my blog readership is very small—“low-flow” you could say—I can sleep at night knowing this story will not cause a  stampede through the time portal for canned fresh river herring roe.

 

But if you do manage to fish this story out of the flooded Internet, and you manage to find a can of roe, I’ve included a recipe for roe cakes for you below, assuming you’re a green roe eater. If you already have an acquired taste for roe, like Lake Cowart, then you might enjoy eating it straight up, from the can, which will save you a lot of time and effort.

 

P.S. Since originally visiting Cross Bros. Grocery last holiday season, the ownership of the venerable grocery has changed, but they still sell canned fresh river herring roe (though I don’t know if it’s still shelved next to packs of cigarettes).

 

Tidewater Roe Potato Cakes

 

If you enjoy the flavor of all types of fish, including the deeper, richer flavor of oily fish, sardines or anchovies or blue fish, for example, then you will enjoy the flavor of these roe cakes. When making roe cakes, it’s more common to mix the roe with bread crumbs or cracker meal (or perhaps flour) than mashed potatoes, but I love the pillow-y texture they give to the cakes and enjoy the more mild and subtle taste of potato-based cakes. Other than the addition of some chopped cooked bacon and a hint of cayenne pepper to the cakes, and opting to coat them in bread crumbs, my modernized version of this circa 1926 recipe is faithful to the Ladies of the School and Civic League of Crewe, Virginia. I find these cakes absolutely delicious served with squeeze of fresh lemon.

 

For the cakes:

  • 1 (8-ounce) can herring roe
  • 1 cup cold mashed Russet or Idaho potatoes (1 medium potato, 8 to 9 ounces, see Note)
  • ½ cup finely chopped onions (about 1 small onion)
  • ¼ cup finely chopped cooked bacon, fat trimmed (optional) (see Note)
  • 1 egg, well beaten
  • 1½ tablespoons extra-fine cracker meal, extra-fine bread crumbs, or flour
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley (about 2 sprigs)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 pinches of cayenne pepper

 

For the coating:

  • 1 egg, well beaten
  • 1 cup bread crumbs

 

Bacon fat, for frying

Lemon wedges, for serving

 

  1. Mix all of the cake ingredients together until well combined. Place in the refrigerator to chill up and allow flavor to marry for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
  2. Form into 14 small cakes, about ¾ inch thick, or croquettes. If you have time, place them a wax paper-lined tray and set them in the freezer for 30 minutes to firm up; this will make them easier to handle in the skillet.
  3. When you’re ready to fry the roe cakes or croquets, heat up a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until it is very hot and beginning to smoke, about 5 minutes.
  4. Dip into the egg, then into the bread crumbs.
  5. When the skill is hot, put 2 to 3 tablespoons of bacon fat in the pan.
  6. When hot, fry the croquettes until golden brown on both sides on all sides, turning them gently. Fry them in batches if needed to as not over crowd the pan.  Serve with lemon wedges. Makes 14 small cakes or croquettes.

 

Notes:

  • You will need about 2 thick-cut slices bacon to end up with ¼ cup finely chopped bacon.
  • To prepare mashed potatoes for croquettes, peel and quarter potatoes and put in a pot. Cover generously with cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add 1 teaspoon of salt to about 3 quarts of water, lower the heat to medium-high, and continue to boil until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and let cool to room temperature, then mash.
  • To make your own cracker meal, put saltine crackers in a heavy plastic bag and rolling them with a rolling pin or place crackers in a food processor and pulse until the desired texture is achieved.

 

Gallery of other roe preparations:

Scrambled roe with egg, the most common preparation. It’s tasty enough, but I think probably a favorite of folks who grew up eating it this way. If you’re new to eating roe, I suggest you make roe cake. It’s delicious that way.

 

My invention: A large roe cake served over mixed salad greens and a topped with a poached egg. It makes for a very good looking and tasty meal, but I think the croquettes served simply with lemon wedges is even better. The subtle flavor of the roe cakes shines more clearly with less going on on the plate.

 

The roe made into croquettes with cracker meal only, no mashed potatoes or cracker meal coating. While prettier than the cracker coated, potato-based version, I prefer the flavor, consistency, and texture contrast the potatoes and meal coating provide.

 

The potato-based, meal coated cakes, my favorite version, shown with a lemon wedge. Don’t forget to serve the cakes with lemon; it’s crucial.

 


2 Comments to “Fresh River Herring Roe”


  1. Oh my, what a splendid piece of history, research, and temptation for an all-things-fishy lover – as well as a sad tale of loss. Have had assorted preps of salmon, sturgeon, lump-fish, lobster, sea urchin, and scallop roe, but never herring. May I be so bold as to say I hope you can save a tin for out-of-area friends to taste! (Isn’t it interesting the French sell sea scallops – coquille St. Jacques – with the roe = ‘coral’. But, Americans throw it away…?)

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  2. Glad you enjoyed the story. Seeing as you’re an experienced fish and seafood eater, and a world traveler, it just goes to show how regional and old-fashioned fresh river herring roe is. Thank you for mentioning the roe that is attached to scallops in France. We Americans do throw too much away, food and otherwise (historic architecture included). I’m going to keep my eye open for scallops with roe still attached. You’ve peaked my interest.

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