Blue Monday

By  |  October 6, 2014
Photography by Chris Fowler Photography by Chris Fowler

The river used to boil, here, with fish in the spring. Thousands of shad, herring, striped bass, eels, even sturgeon, surged upstream from the Atlantic, to spawn in their natal freshwater. In George Graham’s lifetime, all but the shad have effectively disappeared after decades of overfishing, hydroelectric projects, pollution, and the introduction of ravenous nonnative species like blue catfish. At sixty-eight, he’s among the few remaining commercial fishermen on the Cape Fear River, one of North Carolina’s main waterways.

The shad, George told me, were making a gradual comeback. “If I threw a net right now, I’d have me fifty fish before the bend,” he said, pointing to where the water disappeared, a couple hundred yards away. “But the state cut the damn season short.”

We stood on a lock and dam, in East Arcadia, one of three built on the Cape Fear over a century ago to facilitate industrial navigation to Elizabethtown, Tar Heel, and Fayetteville, sixty-five miles upstream, speaking over the roar of a fish ladder, a river-wide staircase of massive stones, built a year ago to encourage migration.

From here the river rolls low, wide, and brown, spanned occasionally by rusty bridges, silly with oxbows and a miscellany of otter slides and abandoned fishing camps southeast for thirty-one miles. There it picks up the glassy, Guinness-colored Black River—the runoff from a series of coastal swamps that conceal the world’s oldest bald cypress, a tree named Methuselah—and in twenty-two more miles arcs through the barge-clotted port of Wilmington, and out to the Big Water.

George grew up in a cabin on the banks, not far from the lock, fishing in hand-built boats, and says he can feel shad in the water. “I got fishing in my blood.”

 

It was the day after Easter, or as it’s known around here, Blue Monday. On King’s Bluff, a grassy shelf overlooking the lock and dam, a crowd of several hundred had gathered for the Blue Monday Shad Fry, an event celebrating the start of spring, and the shad runs that signal it.

I had come with my friend, the photographer and folklorist Chris Fowler, from Duplin County, an hour northeast—hog, as opposed to shad, country. Chris and I arrived early in East Arcadia, a confluence of long, straight roads in spare, sun-beaten countryside on the border of Bladen and Columbus counties, in the southeastern part of the state. There’s a bite of salt in the air, and beneath the surface of things the Carolina red clay, running east, gives way to dusky sand. The town itself is marked by a string of single-story homes, a garden in back of each, and a few shuttered small businesses—Blanks Grocery and the Party Lite convenience store persist—two churches, a one-room satellite campus of Bladen Community College. The small population comprises a cluster of African-American families descended from an isolated group of mixed-race free people and slaves from the adjoining Lloyd and Black Rock plantations, which dealt in timber and shad. Many of them have been in the area since the 1790s, and the current generation, whose forebears lived largely off the land and what the river could provide, work in a handful of nearby factories—International Paper, Smithfield Foods, DuPont. The town ends at the river.

 

It was hot at ten in the morning on the bluff, and neon dogwood blossoms tipped winter-bare branches under a wide bright sky. Little yellow flowers specked the grass, which was packed with trucks, campers, and an assortment of Lincoln Town Cars.

Most of the old timers wore blue t-shirts made for the occasion: EAST ARCADIA BLUE MONDAY FISH FRY. I bought a similarly marked hat. Cowboy boots abounded—“This is boot country,” one man told me—and jerseys and tattoos were popular among the younger generation.

“Black, white, or brown, if you want to eat we’ll feed you,” Earl Brown, one of the event’s organizers, told me repeatedly. A handful of thick-wristed men in denim and camouflage edged the bluff, eyes shaded with low hats. Dressed-up local politicians shook hands and asked for votes. A three-hundred-pound man in a purple suit handed me a postcard, featuring himself in a white suit, pointing, with a stern brow: newton for sherriff: qualify your vote.

A churchly ceremony kicked off the day, with a pastor’s invocation, from a stage in the middle of the lawn: “We thank you, God, for this shad fry occasion and we pray that it continues to extend your blessing and bring the community together.” A local man named Jimmy Gatlin, who said he once sang at the Grand Ole Opry, crooned gospel to programmed Casio music, hammering out occasional embellishments with his left hand. He kept it up, heroically, all day long.

There was an ROTC color guard on hand and one of the politicians presented the community with a state flag, retired from the capitol. This year, for the first time, Blue Monday had been recognized by the state legislature as a holiday—an occasion of great pride for East Arcadians, who have a keen sense for historical preservation, in an area mostly known for Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites and plantation homes. The act made official one of several conflicting origin stories associated with the event: in the 1940s, local business owners Bernard Carter, Moses Blanks, and Archie and Chester Graham revived the old, regional tradition of frying the day after Easter. Over the years their family gathering had grown to include the rest of the community and its diaspora up north. George Graham, Jerry Graham, Jesse Blanks, and Earl Brown have since taken up the torch. Their families assembled before the stage, parading children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who restlessly toed the grass as the smell of frying batter leached sweetly into the air, mingling with the sweeter smell of bacon fat, and wafted into our faces by a breeze over the river. Finally, a line stretched across the bluff, and we prepared to eat.

 

George Graham is in charge of acquiring the shad. He learned to fish from his father, Archie, a riverbank sharecropper and seasonal factory worker who sold shad and catfish in the spring. George has reddish-brown skin and a high-pitched, lilting voice, which crackles with extra syllables in the local style. “When the owls holler, that’s when I know I’m gonna catch me a fish,” George told me. We were far enough down east that the river was tidal—a shift announced, he confided, by the owls—and the shad run better at night. The state no longer allows nets in the water on weekends, ending George’s forty-three-year practice of fishing following long weeks at the paper mill with nights on the water. So on weeknights leading up to the fry, George heads a handful of local fishermen who splay thirty-yard nets over the water, with corks every eight feet to mark their haul. Checking the corks and the bank with a spotlight at intervals, they drift in the quiet dark, a few miles netting pounds of fish. They’d had to freeze the supply this year, George told me with a grimace, since the new season ended two weeks before Easter.

Preparation of shad varies regionally. In New England, where shad are celebrated for keeping George Washington’s troops alive at Valley Forge, the fish are traditionally planked: split in half and nailed skinside down to oak or cedar planks, which are propped before coals and basted with pork fatback dangled from a switch. Other colonials cooked the fish on gridirons over hickory coals, or in rectangular boxes called roasting kitchens. Around here the custom has been to fry the shad in a long-handled cast iron skillet. In the old days, Blue Monday participants cooked over barrel-and-cinderblock fires on the riverbank, on the land that George’s father sharecropped. They occasionally resorted to fashioning fryers out of scrap metal—a setup that must have somewhat resembled today’s rig, a three-by-four-foot welded steel skillet fryer over propane.

George and his friends steak the shad, cutting the meat perpendicular to the spine, and deep fry them in a light batter of meal, ground red pepper, and salt. The flesh is white and oily, crowded with translucent gray bones, and has a powerful, gamy flavor—the result of muscle depletion from their spawning runs, during which the hard-bodied creatures fast. You can taste the sea—the American shad’s scientific name, Alosa sapidissima, translates aptly as “most savory.”

As the line got moving, I lingered in the cooking station, where a heavy-set man named Rico, marring the sea of Carolina blue with full Detroit Tigers regalia, doled out hot fish on paper plates packed with homemade hushpuppies—ideal, I gathered, for pushing down stubborn, gullet-stuck bones—coleslaw, and baked beans. On an adjacent burner, Leonard Hall, a cousin and fishing partner of Graham’s, husbanded a vat of shad roe, the event’s real draw. A sought-after delicacy in more metropolitan places, shad roe has a storied reputation that brings certain vivid images to mind: the mid-century New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell (from nearby Fairmont, North Carolina) reporting from the Fulton Fish Market over a shad-roe omelet; Cole Porter, musing on love and procreation, “Why ask if shad do it? Waiter, bring me shad roe”; and the breakfast routines of wealthy nineteenth-century Charlestonians, serving roe with grits on fine china.

A delicate incision down the female shad’s stomach liberates a pair of surprisingly large vaguely orange lobes, redolent of lungs. Connected by a bloody membrane, each pouch contains about 300,000 eggs, and they are most commonly poached or sautéed intact. In season, you can get shad roe at New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar, with bacon and a broiled tomato, for about thirty dollars. Hominy Grill in Charleston sautées roe in butter and serves it with bacon, mushrooms, asparagus, lemon, garlic, and Tabasco, and at Atlanta’s Empire State South, it’s cured and plated with butter and sliced radishes.

Leonard explained the local recipe between industry complaints—about prices and regulation mostly—while stirring pounds of roe at a time, gently sizzling in bacon grease donated by a local church. Hall added sage, thyme, shallot and green onions, salt and pepper, and then poured in beaten hen eggs to give the roe texture and body.

The result resembled a sandy mix of scrambled eggs and couscous, with a flavor that’s difficult to describe. I removed myself from the bustle of diners to try and parse its elusive notes of smoke, liver, dirt, and brine. Earl Brown, witnessing my puzzled chewing, laughed, and said, “That’s caviar, man. Until I moved to New York, I had no idea I’d been eating caviar my entire life.”

 

I migrated between picnic tables, where old friends bantered and shook hands, comparing memories of past shad fries, fishing triumphs, and the rising prices of soda. Finally I sat down next to Earl, who told me he hasn’t missed Blue Monday in forty-three years. He has a low, booming voice and wore a gold shad medallion around his neck. Like many East Arcadians during the Great Migration and the generation following, he moved north to make a living in New York and then Detroit. “When I first got up there,” Brown said, “I lost me a job for not showing up the day after Easter. I thought they got the day off up there too.”

For Earl, before he returned home to retire, the shad fry was a time to reconnect with family. Now he and his friends Jesse Blanks, a bail bondsman, and Jerry Graham, who came home twenty years ago, after retiring from the New York Transit Authority, provide financial support for the fry. When I asked them about the meaning of Blue Monday, they related the popular local belief that the tradition dates back to slaves on Cape Fear River plantations getting the day off after Easter, and taking that time to feast. Their account might be apocryphal, but it sounds plausible enough. The massive herring, shad, and mullet fisheries that once were common all across the state from colonial times to the Civil War relied on a black workforce, both free and enslaved. This was highly skilled labor that involved piloting ships through the coast’s notoriously treacherous shoals; dredging canals and seine runs, which required black divers to tamp explosives into thousand-year-old cypress roots; and wielding hand-woven nets, up to a mile-and-a-half long and brimming with tons of fish.

The degree of specialization and the comparatively lax oversight required by such labor, which often took place at night on the water, led many slave holders to forgo coercive measures for rewards and incentives: wages, fishing allowances, and days off. For slaves on the Lloyd and Black Rock plantations, shad also would have supplemented their diet—and they likely engaged in illicit trade, using the fish to garner fatback, money, and other supplies. Certainly, the sudden influx of fresh meat, as the winter pantries ran low, would have been more than welcome.

“It was a time of celebration, of spring coming,” said Perry Dixon, the former mayor of the adjoining town of Sandyfield (his brother, Willie, owner of the Party Lite, currently holds the post in East Arcadia). Perry grew up farming in fields by the river and recalled the respite of fresh shad after winters of salted herring. They’re used to celebrating holidays late, he added. More recently, segregation-era East Arcadians observed the Fourth of July on the 6th on nearby Lake Waccamaw, after white revelers had cleared out.

Still, the story of Blue Monday is disputed, and locals tend to debate its origins, as they’ll debate the proper way to clean a fish. A number of groups in East Arcadia claim the shad fry tradition as their own, in spite of the state’s recognition of one version. Later that afternoon, I checked out a competing Blue Monday celebration, where families in neon green t-shirts ate shad, roe, pepper-vinegar barbecue, and goat—pit roasted, with salt, pepper, and thyme—in a dappled grove of unrestrained live oaks, a few minutes’ drive from the lock and dam. In fact, practically everyone I spoke with in East Arcadia seemed to be the only one who knew what he or she was talking about.

A local historian named Earnestine Keaton invited me to an event she has spearheaded called the Cape Fear River Shad Festival, which takes place the week before Easter. Keaton started the event, she told me, because Blue Monday, whose founders were of free descent, didn’t properly acknowledge the area’s slave heritage. Keaton’s efforts to compile troves of plantation records and hours of oral history recordings are widely lauded in the area—and throughout the state. But touching Blue Monday seemed to ruffle feathers in town.

“She’s messing with history,” one man said, when I asked him about Keaton’s event, “and that ain’t right.”

I was surprised to find so much variation and controversy in a local tradition, but I’ve come to understand that these kinds of permutations are myriad in the region—and that the mild contention reflects a murkiness derived from the era of slavery. “These small communities look unified to outsiders, but cross a creek, and you’ll find completely different histories, and differences of opinion that have persisted for centuries,” said David Cecelski, author of The Waterman’s Song, a fine book detailing the region’s porous racial boundaries. This was true for the isolated societies that sprouted along the region’s remote waterways—mixed descendents of freed and runaway slaves, Indian survivors of the Tuscarora war, and poor whites who clung as dearly to their independence as they did the river for sustenance—and for former maritime slaves. All of these groups made up the population of East Arcadia in the nineteenth century, and their influences are still visible there today. 

 

As Blue Monday drew to a close, Perry Dixon took us to the site of the former Lloyd Plantation, a shaded bend, where Highway 11 spans the water. We had planned to visit the slave cemetery that was rediscovered about fifteen years ago—an overgrown field abutting the river, long bare of the lighter knots that marked burial plots—but we were thwarted by hunters in the woods.

Most of the plantation was bought by Riegel Paper, when it opened the mill here in the 1950s, and is now in the hands of real estate developers, whose plans are uncertain, but will surely impact the area’s future. Portions of the land belong to Perry, passed down from his grandfather George P. Dixon, who was born there in 1865 and, in a prime example of the enterprising spirit of former slaves in the area, translated his skilled labor—as a cooper, floating barrels down the river to Wilmington, and tapping trees for turpentine—into land and business ownership. In the decades that followed, the onset of industrialization, the slow erosion of black land ownership, mass migration, and integrated schooling—which East Arcadians resisted until forced busing transplanted community schools in 1970—have transformed the community.

The river barges, whose blaring horns many older locals recall hearing at night—with names like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Rebel—have gone the way of the once-vibrant fisheries. The lock and dam would have been blown up years ago if it didn’t provide drinking water to Wilmington. But East Arcadians continue to rely on the river, for sustenance and for sense of self, and to gather, every Blue Monday, to sacramentally taste their Cape Fear origins.


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

John McElwee works in book-to-film development in New York. He last wrote for the Oxford American about the Blue Monday Shad Fry in eastern North Carolina.