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Essex shad bake featured on Cooking Channel

Where there's smoke, there's fire and where there's fire, there just might be a television camera filming "Man Fire Food," a program now in its second season on the Cooking Channel.

"Man Fire Food" focuses on a summer standard: men cooking outdoors, everything from Texas barbecues and New England lobster bakes to Hawaiian luaus. And on Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m., the television program will feature the Essex Rotary Shad Bake, which this June celebrated its 55th anniversary. At the bake itself, large filets of shad are cooked on red oak planks placed around a roaring open fire.

Roger Mooking, the host of "Man Fire Food," said he thinks the link between men and outdoor cooking had its origins in pre-history.

"It's a bonding experience for men. It probably started in Neanderthal times," he said.

Essex Rotary president Geraldine Ficarra thinks fire was an important part of the equation.

"It's wrestling with danger," she stated.

Rotarian Glenn Herman had a more prosaic explanation for why most men cooked outdoors but not indoors.

"Because guys are outside, in the garage or in the basement," he said.

The Cooking Channel learned about the shad bake from a YouTube video that Essex Rotarian Lon Seidman made some five years ago. Staff from "Man Fire Food" worked with Essex Rotarian Joseph Shea, who has been bakemaster for more than a decade, to create a seven-page script that detailed the entire cookout process.

As a result, Shea can talk with some expertise about filming techniques like the difference between camera A and camera B. Camera A, he explained, is for long-range shots; camera B for close ups. For the occasion, Shea bought new leather aprons for himself and Mooking to wear on the day of the bake. That day, which is always a long one, became an even longer one for Shea this year because of the filming. Set-up for the shoot began at 5:45 a.m., and Shea was not finished until 8:30 p.m.

A shad bake filmed live means the cooks must get things right the first time; the cooking process provides little leeway for do-overs.

"There are no second takes with shad," Shea said.

Still, Herman, who has been a nailer - the person who fastens the shad to the oak boards - for more than 15 years, said the crew he worked with had to go through several sequences of unloading and transferring the oak boards.

"We did it three or four times, probably passing along the same 15 boards each time," he said.

Jack Monahan, another longtime shad bake regular, admitted that he nearly revealed a well-kept secret to the television crew - the make-up of the bake's special sauce.

"I might have hinted at the ingredients, but that's all," he explained.

Like other participants, Monahan said that the Rotarians were so busy that as the day proceeded, they didn't notice the film crew.

"I was conscious of their presence earlier, but it became subsumed into the background. There was so much to do," he said.

So much to do, in fact, that Ficarra didn't see much of the film crew at all, or even the Rotarians doing the cooking.

"I was folding T-shirts," she noted.

The Cooking Channel had specified that there be no announcement of the filming before the shad bake; Shea surmised that was because they did not want a crowd of gawkers at the event. But the the word is out now, and the Rotarians are eager to see show. Monahan said people at his Hartford office, some of whom came to Essex for the bake, have been regularly asking when it will air.

"They've been pestering me for weeks about when it's going to be on," he said.

Mooking, who had never seen a shad bake before the filming, was most impressed by the height of the fire, with the flames rising 10 feet in the air. He was also enthusiastic about eating the cooked shad, which he had never tasted before. Born in Trinidad and raised in Canada, Mooking now lives in Toronto.

Mooking said, "I wasn't going to come all this way for a show and not eat the shad."

"Men Fire Food" featuring the Essex Rotary Shad Bake airs on The Cooking Channel Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m.


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