How the Washington Statesmen Feasted in Ante-Bellum Days
Washington Correspondent of the Boston Budget
In ante-bellum days, at this season of the year, when there was a long session, a party went down the Potomac every Saturday on the steamboat Salem to eat planked shad. It was chiefly composed of Senators and representatives, with a few leading officials, some prominent citizens, and three or four newspaper men, who in those days never violated the amenities of social life by printing what they heard there. An importing house in Georgetown would send on board the steamer demijohns filled with the best wines and liquors, which almost everybody drank without stint. Running down the river there was good deal of card playing in the upper saloon of the boat, with some story-telling on the hurricane deck. Arriving at the white house fishing grounds, some would go ashore, some would watch the drawing of the seine from the boat, some would take charge of the culinary department, and a few would remain at the card tables. The oaken planks used were about two inches thick, fourteen inches wide and two feet long. These were scalded and wiped dry. A freshly caught shad* was then taken, scaled, split open down the back, cleaned, washed and dried. It was then spread out on a plank and nailed to it with iron pump tacks. The plank with the fish on it was the set against a stone at an angle of 45 degrees before a hot wood fire and baked until it was a rich dark brown color, an attendant turning the plank every few minutes and basting the fish with a thin mixture of melted butter and flour. Meanwhile an experienced cook was frying fresh shad roe in a mixture of eggs and cracker dust at another fire, where sweet and Irish potatoes were being roasted in the ashes. On one occasion Mr. Webster, who had some codfish sent him in ice on a government steamer from Boston, carried them down on a shad-bake, with a large kettle, some pork, some ship biscuit, some milk, and some onions and had a chowder made by a couple of us who were from Massachusetts. He was very particular in having the pork first cut into dice, fried and then taken out with a screen. The melted pork fat remained in the kettle and in it were placed successive layers of fish, crackers, onions and potatoes until the kettle was two-thirds full, when we poured in a generous quantity of milk. I regret to say that the chowder was slightly burnt and was not a success, although Mr. Webster persisted in calling it excellent, and ate several platefuls. The planked shad, meanwhile, were served on the planks on which they had been cooked, each person having a plank and picking out the portions which he liked the best, breaking up his roast potato on the warm shad, while the roe was also served to those who wished for it. After the fish came punch and cigars, and then they re-embarked and the bows of the steamer were turned toward Washington. When opposite Alexandria and account was taken of the wine and liquor which had been drunk, and an assessment was levied, which generally amounted to about $3 each. I never saw a person intoxicated at one of those shad-bakes, nor heard any quarreling. The festivity at one of them, however, was marred by the accidental falling overboard of a young man from Georgetown, who was drowned.