Blue Monday Shad Fry: Longtime Traditional Foodways Event
by John McElwee
Fifty miles into North Carolina on the Cape Fear River, a string of modest houses and a couple of churches mark the rural communities of East Arcadia, Sandyfield, and Carver’s Creek, in Bladen and Columbus counties. Their 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.
Every Easter Monday, a day known locally as Blue Monday, residents of these communities convene on a bluff overlooking the river for the Blue Monday Shad Fry, an event celebrating the spawning run of shad—when large pods of the Atlantic fish head into fresh water to reproduce—that signals the arrival of spring.
The Blue Monday Shad Fry officially began in the 1940s, but it is an extension of a much older practice, endemic to the region, of frying shad the day after Easter, which dates back to the days of slavery in a more or less consistent form—and well beyond, albeit in different permutations, in Native American tradition. Its origins are murky, but it’s clear that shad have long been a way of life in the area, their migration a time of bounty and celebration at the end of winter, when pantries ran low.
Due to the tireless efforts of a new generation of community leaders—from netting and cooking hundreds of shad, to securing financial support and even, in 2013, state recognition as an official holiday—the Blue Monday Shad Fry is thriving.
The 2014 recipients of the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Community Tradition award, George Graham, Earl Brown, Jesse Blanks, Connie Jacobs, Wendell Brown, and Jerry Graham, have been stalwart defenders of this rich tradition.
A lot has changed, in the region, over the last fifty years. Its once-vibrant fishing industry—shad, eel, sturgeon, blue catfish—has all but collapsed, along with its fish stock. The community itself has dispersed, as its population headed north during the Great Migration. But in the same years, the Blue Monday Shad Fry has grown from a few local families frying on the riverbank to a large-scale homecoming, a migration in its own right, with over 1,000 attendees busing long distances to reunite with kin and ritually taste their Cape Fear origins.
Rural black culture such as it exists in Bladen and Columbus counties, with its close connections to life on the Cape Fear river, is often overlooked, in an area better known for bald cypresses and Revolutionary War and Civil War battle sites. The Blue Monday Shad Fry is essential to the preservation and celebration of this way of life.
A longer article based on a trip John McElwee and Chris Fowler took to the Blue Monday Shad Fry and sites near the event’s host community appeared in Oxford American (Issue 86, Fall 2014).
John McElwee works in the fiction department at The New Yorker and contributes to The New Inquiry and Oxford American.
Original publication citation:
McElwee, John. “Blue Monday Shad Fry: Longtime Traditional Foodways Event.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 61.1-2 (2014): 15-19.