ONE WAY TO tell the native Marylanders from the "come-heres" is to put plates of shad roe in front of them and see who dives in and who shies away.
That is what Jerry Pellegrino, chef and owner of Corks restaurant, told me shortly after he had sent out servings of the sauteed fish eggs to diners. Those receiving the roe were some 48 area winemakers, government types and assorted scribes who had convened at the Federal Hill restaurant for a shindig dubbed "An Evening of Maryland Wine and Seafood."
The five-course dinner designed to pair Maryland dishes with state wines was put on by the Association of Maryland Wineries and the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
"People either love or hate shad roe," Pellegrino said. The shad-roe aficionados, the ones whose eyes light up at the sight of the fabled fish eggs, are usually Maryland natives, he said. The diners who resort to pushing the roe around their plates are usually transplants.
Sure enough, the plates of Rob DeFord, owner of Boordy Vineyards, and Howard King, director of Maryland Fisheries, had nary a speck of eggs left on them. Both DeFord and King are natives of Maryland.
Meanwhile, your correspondent, who has lived in Maryland for almost three decades but, alas, is a native of Dodge City, Kan., took a few polite bites of the rich dish before putting his knife and fork in the 10 and 4 o'clock position, the diner's equivalent of throwing in the towel.
In my defense, and in defense of other shad-roe short-hitters, the portion was large. It was shaped like Maryland's Eastern Shore and seemed almost as long. It was about as wide as the Chesapeake.
Moreover, this gigantic helping of roe had been preceded by three sumptuous courses and an appetizer, all enjoyed with several glasses of Maryland wine.
Down the hatch had gone Maryland Oysters Cappuccino - oysters poached in truffle cream and dotted with American sturgeon caviar - served with glasses of Cuvee de Chardonnay, a nonvintage brut sparkling wine from Cygnus Winery.
Next had come substantial servings of pan-seared rockfish nestled in citrus bulgur wheat and accompanied by not one, but two Maryland 2001 chardonnays, a crisp Woodhall and a buttery Basignani.
Then the roasted fluke, a fish related to flounder but with a much more interesting flavor and texture, arrived on the scene. It, too, was devoured, along with side dishes of braised baby bok choy, gingered shiitake mushrooms, a spicy miso broth and a glass of a remarkable 2002 gewurztraminer from Elk Run.
So, by the time the shad roe, accompanied by a prosciutto, rice bean cassoulet, a roasted Vidalia onion and a raspberry sauce, hit the table, some appetites were lagging. But, clearly, not those of die-hards like DeFord. In short order, the roe placed in front of him was history.
"I believe if you are being fed well, you eat what is put in front of you because who knows when you eat this well again," DeFord said, in a post-meal interview.
King said later that while he does not usually indulge in eating the rich dish, he polished off the serving of shad roe in the spirit of the evening and in honor of the fish's "epic migration" from the Atlantic and into Mid-Atlantic rivers to spawn.
He also pointed out that while the shad roe served at the meal was appreciated by Marylanders, it came from fish in the Carolinas. Conservation measures protect shad that migrate to Maryland waters, and after years of decline, the local shad fishery is making a comeback, he said.
All I could contribute to the shad-roe discussion was that I liked the wines served with the fish eggs. I must admit that the roe, with its dense flavors sweetened by sauce, tasted better than it looked. Yet it was very rich.
With the roe came red wines, a 2002 Watershed Reserve from Deep Creek Cellars and a 2001 cabernet franc from Boordy Vineyards. It is not every day you see red wines served with fish.
But Pellegrino said he picked these two reds because they're muscular enough not to be overwhelmed by the strong flavor of the roe and the sweetness of the roasted Vidalia onion.
"We thought about soaking the shad roe overnight in milk but decided against it because that would take too much of the flavor away," Pellegrino said. "So we just cooked it in a hot pan with butter, two to three minutes on each side."
While the large serving of roe gave me a case of palate fatigue, this malady turned out to be temporary. My palate was up and running for the cheese course. This course included a farmhouse cheddar from Sweet Grass Dairy served with two sturdy Maryland reds, a 2001 Chambourcin Proprietor's Reserve from Fiore vineyard and a nonvintage chambourcin from Linganore Winecellars.
The finale, sweet potato pie with a helping of lemon-curd ice cream, was accompanied by a remarkable dessert wine, Vin de Glace from Catoctin.
While they rarely garner world-class status, Maryland wines are good "food wines," Pellegrino said, pleasant companions to sip while eating a meal.
Maybe so, but unlike certain natives, when the Maryland cabernet franc and Atlantic shad roe appear before me, I am more attracted to the red wine than the roe.