Lodge keeps tradition alive with shad bakes
Friday, May 30, 2008
Correction: In this story published May 30, Mickey Thomas was characterized as one of a group of men who were drinking beer during the event covered below. While some of the men in the group did have beers, Thomas was not one of them.
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Photos by GRACE DAVIS
Willie Jolly, a member of Beehive Lodge 69 in Bryans Road, tends the shad baking slowly next to a wood fire for the lodge’s 89th annual Shad Bake on Saturday at the lodge.
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Jolly displays one of the 89-year-old boards on which the shad are baked.
If you pulled up to the Beehive Lodge 69 on Saturday, the aroma was inescapable.
A rich amalgam of strong fish and wood smoke, with a hint of sweetness, the smell of the shad baking on their oak boards was a tantalizing invitation into the lodge for a dinner that could not be beat.
Member Willie Jolly explained that cooking the shad in the traditional way is a two-day endeavor of nailing the shad onto lard-oiled boards, standing the boards up on racks around a huge wood fire, then tending and basting the fish all one night until they are soft, the bones mostly dissolved and the strong, oily fish permeated with flavor.
Jolly said the fish tenders have contests to see who can baste the most fish with the secret sauce before having to jump out of the fire’s range. Most can barely make two racks of fish.
‘‘It feels like your clothes are ironed on your whole body,” Jolly said.
The sauce, though, is what makes the meal, Jolly said. So what is in the magical fluid, a touch sweet with a strong spicy flavor?
‘‘I could tell you,” Jolly said. ‘‘But if I did, I’d have to take you into the woods.”
The strong implication was that only one person would return from the woods, so a reporter hastily turned to other matters.
Oliver Myers is one of the oldest members of the lodge, and his father was the original ‘‘worshipful master” of the Masonic organization, founded in 1919.
‘‘At least that’s what they tell me,” Myers cracked. ‘‘I wasn’t around.”
Myers said the recipe was handed down for generations before the lodge brothers began baking shad — some call it ‘‘planking” shad, because of the boards.
‘‘It’s an old custom,” he said. ‘‘The Indians had a method. They used to dig a pit,” and bake the shad slowly inside. The Beehive method, presumably, leaves a lot less ash on the fish.
The lodge is proud of its heritage as one of the oldest African-American institutions around.
Mickey Thomas, one of a group of men drinking beer sitting near the shed holding the fish and the fire, said the lodge has had its share of community involvement over the years. He said that when schools were still segregated in Charles County, the lodge had to serve as a temporary school building while the white-run government searched for a permanent building.
The lodge has minutes of its meetings going back to the founding year of 1919. Jolly said the most interesting note he has read said the group donated $25 to the defense fund of the Scottsboro Boys, a 1920s cause célèbre in the civil rights movement in which a group of Alabama black men were falsely accused of rape.
J.C. Parks, for whom a county elementary school was named, was a secretary of the lodge for 25 years, according to Thomas, and Luther Stuckey, the founder and guiding light of the Charles County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was also a member.
Now, the lodge is still motivated by community service. Members sponsor a college scholarship for a deserving young person each year, and mentor students at J.C. Parks school, among other activities.
‘‘One of our mottos is ‘Take a good man and make him better,’” Jolly said.
The same goes for good fish once each year in the spring.