Foods — like shad roe — that take some getting used to

Baltimore has long had some dubious culinary leanings

April 01, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

The warm Baltimore spring has been slow to land this year but that doesn't mean I am any less vigilant about one of its most dubious culinary arrivals. I thought I had finally dodged this April curse, but while on York Road the other night, I spotted a restaurant banner announcing the annoying shad roe.

I do not eat it. It's worse than tripe, muskrat or kidney stew. Rhubarb is a delicious spring treat by comparison. And why is it, no matter what dining establishment I pick this time of year, that the person next to me is tucking in, with glee, on the vein-filled stuff, smothered with a pile of bacon?

It was on a cool and drizzly April night 35 years ago that a Bolton Hill hostess served it at a dinner party. She acted as if it were such a delicacy. The fellow guests swooned, but I think they were being polite. The house on John Street was too small to avoid it. Today I would have claimed a fashionable medical condition or food-based allergy. Back then, you suffered and wrote a polite thank-you note the next day.

I was forced to swallow the shad roe, assisted only by alternating glasses of water and alcohol. This was the mid-1970s, when that dubious alcoholic concoction, the pina colada, was making the rounds. Its coconut flavor covered the oily aftertaste of what I feared was the menhaden fish that the shad ingested for lunch. At my home later that evening, I enjoyed a nightcap: Pepto-Bismol.

I was never much of a Baltimore seafood lover — I'll try a crab cake once a year. This week, I watched a dinner companion drain a bowl of oyster stew while I had the iceberg lettuce wedge salad. My friends regularly abandon me for shucked oysters at the Friday happy hour. But, come on: A raw oyster is far preferable to shad roe.

The Baltimore I knew as a child presented all sorts of questionable foods that my family often overpraised. These were downright weird dishes then that time has not improved. People would line up for the fried eggplant at the old Horn & Horn on East Baltimore Street. I adored the restaurant and practically all its menu, but that eggplant, stringy and rubbery? No way. Beef tongue was then a standard main dish. It wasn't so bad as long as you didn't think about it. I often ordered it, sliced deli-style, at Lexington Market. I could never master boiling a beef tongue for a dining room full of family or guests.

And my mother could clear the kitchen when she decided to fry honeycomb tripe, a meat taken from a cow's stomach. I wisely left the house. Tripe is not so bad in pepperpot soup, where its taste is disguised. Like beef tongue, it is best not to think about it when you eat it.

A few springs ago, I dropped into a little delicatessen in Budapest and pointed to this dish and that one in a glass case. The soup was delicious; I inquired about its composition. The counter servers interpreted my question but sought help from the owner. She stuck out her tongue and held it. I knew immediately what the mystery ingredient was.

It took time to overcome a queasiness to sweetbreads, a regular on the menu at the fondly recalled Marconi's on Saratoga Street. How well I recall a waiter, in a voice that was both self-mocking and haughty, saying to me, "Will that be sweetbreads Sarah Bernhardt, or creamed, broiled or bordelaise?"

I conquered the sweetbread aversion quickly and recently delighted in the veal variety served with polenta, another dish whose spongy texture took a few trial runs to accommodate. It reminds me of hominy and grits, two more dishes that push food alarms. And so, I say to the Marylanders who must have their shad roe, go, enjoy — and roast a nice spring chicken for me.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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