Salting Fish Day
Visit the Farm family as they clean and salt down their yearly catch of herring. They invite you to help scale, gut and pack fish into jars, and learn about the important contributions the Potomac river makes in their lives.
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Fishing on the Potomac in the 18th Century:
Melting snow and spring rains cause the rivers in Virginia to swell and rush in late April or early May. With this sudden swelling or freshet come the herring and shad runs. In the 18th century, vast numbers of fish would come up the Potomac River from the ocean to spawn. This presented a great opportunity for people to gather their year’s supply of fish.
During the runs, the river was so thick with fish that the poor (like the Bradley Family) could gather fish using small nets or even baskets. They would then salt the fish to preserve it.
In his diary, George Washington talks about gathering fish with nets or seins.
April 10, 1771: “Began to Haul the Sein, tho few fish were Catchd, & those of the Shad kind, owing to the coolness of the weather. Many Shad had been catchd on the Maryland Shore.”
Wealthy people like Washington who owned docks and boats would often gather fish in great quantities duringt the runs and then sell them to plantations or ship them to Europe.
Here Washington describes a deal with Mr. Robert Adam in which Adam will buy the fish caught at Washington’s landing for the price of 3 shillings (Virginia currency) per thousand for herring and 8 shillings 4 pence per hundred for whitefish (shad). It is later noted in Washington’s ledger that Adam recieved 473,750 herring and 4,623 shad during April and May of 1770 for which Washington was paid £102 (Virginia currency):
February 3, 1770: “Agreed with Mr. Robt. Adam for the Fish catchd at the Fishing Landing…on the following terms-to wit He is obligd to take all I catch at that place provided the quantity does not exceed 500 Barls. And will take more than this qty. If he can get Cask to put them in. He is to take them as fast as they are catchd with out giving any interruption to my people; and is to have the use of the Fish House for his Salt, fish & ca. taking care to have the House clear at least before the next Fishing Season. In consideration of which he is to pay me Ten pounds for the use of the House, give 3/ a thousand for the Herring (Virg. Money) and 8/4 a hundred (Maryland Curry.) for the whitefish.”
At the “Fish House”, the herring and shad were salted and packed in barrels to be sold or shipped abroad.
Source: Jackson, Donald and Dorothy Twohig, editors. The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. II and III. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976.
To Cure Herrings:
The best method for preserving herrings, and which may be followed with ease, for a small family, is to take the brine left of your winter stock for beef, to the fishing place, and when the seine is hauled, to pick out the largest herrings, having roes, and throw them alive into the brine; let them remain twenty-four hours, take them out, and lay them on sloping planks, that the brine may drain off; having a tight barrel, put some coarse alum salt in the bottom, then put a layer of herrings-take care not to bruise them; sprinkle over it allum salt and some salt-petre, then fish salt and salt petre, till the barrel is ful; keep a board over it. Should they not make brine enough to cover them in a few weeks, you must add some, fo they will be rusty if not kept under the brine. The proper time to salt them is when they have been up the rivers long enough to fatten: the scales will adhere closely to a lean herring, but will be loose on a fat one-the former is not fit to be eaten. Do not be sparing of salt when you put them up. When they are to be used, take a few out of brine, soak them an hour or two, scale them nicely, pull off the gills, and only entrail they have will come with them; wash them clean and hang them up to dry. When to be broiled, take half a sheet of white paper, rub it over with butter, put the herring in, double the edges securely, and broil, without burning it. The brine the herrings drink before they die, has wonderful effect in preserving their juices:-When one or two years old, they are equal to anchovies.
From: The Virginia House-wife by Mary Randolph, first published in 1824.
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This spring break, Patricia Nevins Kime—respected journalist and author of the first edition of Moon Washington DC—offers her selections for ten can’t-miss activities, perfect for kids and their chaperones.
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