Thursday, July 06, 2006

Woe for Roe 

**Warning** This post has nothing to do with abortion rights.

When we were growing up, our father would make Sunday brunch, usually with a distinctly Southern accent. Most of the key ingredients were invariably acquired on our summer trip to central Virginia, bought at Nicholas' Market ("Nick's") in rural Dillwyn. Corn muffins were often on the menu, but sometimes batter bread or hoe cakes if we still had some of the "special" Viginia cornmeal. These were often accompanied by one of my all time favorite foods, herring roe cakes.

Roe cakes were unheard of in Iowa City, and in fact the first person I ever met outside my family who had even heard of them was a college friend from Harlem, whose father hailed from Richmond. In my family they were a delicacy. The roe came in small cans labeled "Tidewater herring roe" and whenever we were in Virginia, my father always made a point of clearing out the entire inventory at Nick's market, carefully stashing the cans in the secret compartment in the back of our station wagon for the long drive back to Iowa. To make roe cakes, the contents of a can were mashed with a fork and combined with a beaten egg, and then fried in bacon drippings. My dad always liked his with apple sauce. YUM. (On a slightly related topic, please see Tigerhawk's cholesteral post below).

As time went by the price of these little cans went up and up. When I last saw them they were approching $4 a can, and unfortunately that was some time ago. When I moved to central Virginia two years ago, I thought to myself "now I'll be able to get herring roe anytime I want," but it was not the case. I searched fruitlessly in down-home grocery stores and high-end specialty stores alike, but was unable to turn up a can.

Two weeks ago my sister was visiting us down in Buckingham County and we were lamenting the vanished roe. Nick's Market is now gone, replaced with a Food Lion, and while you can buy chicken feet there you can't find a can of roe. She claimed to have purchased cans at the pricey Foods of all Nations in Charlottesville, but I'd turned the place upside down and found nothing.

In the age of google, however, mysteries are easier to solve and that turned out to be the case here. A query on "Tidewater herring roe" reveals the tragic answer, in this case from an archival collection at NC State University:

The Perry-Wynns Fish Company was formed in 1952 when L.D. Perry and Leo Wynns formed a partnership to run a herring packing plant in Colerain, North Carolina on the western shore of the Chowan River. The company was incorporated on February 7, 1966. For decades, it was the largest freshwater herring fishery in the world, packing both herring and herring roe under the Tidewater Brand, the Bertie Brand and Chowan's Best. It also ran a restaurant, the Sea Gull Cafe, that was open for lunch during the herring season in March and April. During the Perry-Wynns Fish Company's height, it hired up to 200 seasonal and permanent employees.

During the 1990s, the number of herring in the Chowan River fell, and the business shrank to a point where it hired 25 seasonal employees and had ten full-time employees. The company also began packing herring, mackerel and mullet caught elsewhere, rather than processing fish caught locally in the Chowan River. In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel destroyed nine of the fishery's eleven buildings, putting the company out of business.


By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Thu Jul 06, 03:22:00 PM:

A tragedy for fish and friends of roe alike. At the rate Blue Crabs are declining, are we soon to see the demise of she-crab soup, another tidewater delicacy and still available in cans?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Jul 06, 03:54:00 PM:

So sad. Hurricane Isabel and the changing tastes of the Great Unwashed stole a piece of my childhood.  

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Thu Jul 06, 04:18:00 PM:

L-Bob blames over fishing, and probably has a point given the decline. Ultimately, however, I don't see how one can avoid blaming Bush and his failure to sign Kyoto.  

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Thu Jul 06, 04:24:00 PM:

Just to respond to Greenman's point, the tragedy for the fish preceded the destruction of the cannery. I suppose the company's demise should be considered good news for the herring, even if bad news for eaters of roe.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jul 06, 04:50:00 PM:

interesting post...

however, i am curious about your insight on the NJ Democrat Machine raising taxes again...

i am one of those skeptics, who believes the entire 'shut down' was a sham, an act, a play, to portray the Governor as tough, and make the other Democrat Partisans seem to be opposed to tax increases, when the outcome was already pre-ordained in the back room...

i have seen the old 'con' so many times in the tri-state arena, i just cannot buy into the 'Fourth of July' parade of Liberal Democrats bickering over tax increases...  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Thu Jul 06, 06:30:00 PM:

"The Herring is the King of the Sea / The Herring is The Fish For Me / The Herring is the King of the Sea / Sing Fol the Do or Die!"

From a college friend's folk-electric band, lyrics
at http://www.broadside.org/music/lyrics/herring.html

Also, am reeading John Hay's classic THE RUN about herring and a Cape Cod community. Superb.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Jul 07, 03:03:00 PM:

I've eaten my share of shad roe for breakfast. Herring roe also, but very rarely. Always fresh, never canned. I didn't know herring roe is or was available in cans. Roland Products markets canned shad roe.

The herring runs in these parts disappeared long before those in North Carolina. If you spend enough time near the water, you can still see some blueback herring and alewife running up the creeks. Fortunately, many of the small mill and flood control dams that block the fish are being removed. In any case, it's probably too late. Harvesting of shad is prohibited here, but the fish and roe sets are available in stores.

I'm easily obsessed, so I looked for canned herring on the net. I couldn't find any. However, a few sites list fish mongers that supply herring and other roes in the mid-Atlantic region. See the supplier's directory at www.virginiaseafood.org. Perhaps a fish monger can help.

BTW, The Perry-Wynns Fish Company is still listed in the North Carolina seafood directory. See: http://www.ncagr.com/markets/seafood/seafooddirect/directory.asp.  

By Blogger BG, at Wed Jul 19, 09:51:00 PM:

I've got little to add on the environmental note; however, I'm pretty sure you can still buy canned herring roe at Reid's market on Preston in Charlottesville. At least, I saw it there about three months ago, and I'm reasonably sure it was "Tidewater" brand. Might have been caught and processed in 2003, but what the heck. You might also ask at Anderson's.

Brian Glover  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jul 25, 12:25:00 AM:

This is my spot, but I get it by the case. Lake Packing Company in Lottsburg VA will ship you a case is they have any after my order.
William in Honolulu(Aloha)
p s and you know I cant get it any other way out here.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Feb 21, 03:57:00 PM:

try http://www.expatdirect.co.uk/products.asp?id=tinnedproduce&subcat=SeaFood  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Feb 26, 01:58:00 PM:

Thanks for the info on the canned roe. We have been looking for about a year and finnaly found it at the fresh fish counter in our local HArris Teeter. They keep it behind the counter and you have to ask for it specially. It is now $5 a can so we try to stock up when we are able. The brand they sell here is Chowan's Best in case you are ever in the neighborhood - Chesapeake, VA.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 14, 11:56:00 AM:

I've looked everywhere for canned herring roe and can't find it! Oh, how I wish for some of my mama's herring roe on toast. She used to drain a can of CHowan's Best, mix it with egg and spread it on a piece of lightly buttered and toasted bread. Then, she would top it with partially cooked bacon and slowly broil it 'til the bacon was crisp. She still makes it for me once in a while when I visit her, but she is 91 now and forgets exactly how she did it. I remember and I could do it, but...that is her treat!
My dad loved herring roe and salted herring in the jar, too. When it began to get hard to find, he ordered it by the case from the company that canned it, Chowan's Best. He died in 1993 and for the longest time, I thought mom was still using that same roe. I think I'd have eaten it,too!
I am going to South Hill next week and if she feels like fixing herring roe on toast from fourteen-plus year old canned roe, I don't think I will be able to resist it! So...goodbye.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Aug 10, 01:58:00 PM:

Try contacting Cowart Seafood Corp
at this e-mail address:


I bought a case of Tidewater Herring Roe from them in last few years.

Hopefully, they're still there.

Ida Know.

Good luck, fellow "Roe eater".  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Aug 11, 11:02:00 AM:

Here's what it says on the label of the can:

Lake Packing Co., Inc.
755 Lake Landing Drive
Lottsburg, VA 22511


By Blogger southernlady, at Sat Nov 24, 08:28:00 AM:

I have five cans of Herring Roe left...packed under the Chesapeake Pride label. The distributor is listed as Chesapeake Oyster Marketing Company, Lottsburg, VA. The packer is Lake Packing Company, Inc, Box 200, Lottsburg, VA 22511; (804) 529-6101. Not sure if this info is still valid as I have have hoarded these cans for more than fifteen years! Don't want to run out.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 25, 09:21:00 AM:

Originally from Hampton, Va., I also grew up eating Tidewater brand herring roe. While a frequent breakfast item when growing up, the rising prices over the years and reduction of fried foods in my diet has made it a comfort food of memories which I still have once or twice a year. The memories are even better when I get together and share it with my brothers and sisters. For those having difficulty finding it, check out (via Google) John West Herring Roe available through British Expatriot stores on the Internet. If you wish to try something a little different, John West also has Cod Roe. I discovered both while stationed abroad with the US gov't.  

By Blogger Travis, at Tue Jan 29, 03:29:00 PM:

I have been trying to find Tidewater or Chowan roe for a couple of years, to no avail. I have also tried to find salt cured roe herring which we used to order from Tappahannock, VA many years ago. In fact, I traveled the entire punensula between the Patomac & the Rappannock rivers, but could not find any roe or roe herring. Like the Willie Nelson song, "Another piece of America is gone"  

By Blogger ADG Jones, at Tue Feb 19, 12:03:00 PM:

I grew up on Chowan's Best herring roe and remember how the prices kept rising as I got older. My grandmother use to hoard cans, but I think she has a hard time finding it now. I was thinking about seeing if I could find herring roe online and ran across this website. I was born and raised in Edenton, NC on the banks of the Chowan River. Herring roe was something that was a natural part of my life. It was present at every breakfast on the weekends when my sister and I were children and as we grew older, it was on the table at every breakfast. Hurrican Isabel did a lot of damage to my hometown. Damage that is still visible a few years later. I remember my grandmother mentioning that the buildings for the herring roe company being destroyed. Another item I remember from my childhood and that I use now in my household was Abbott white cornmeal. It was what my family used and still uses to fry fish in. Hurrican Isabel did a lot of damage to their buildings also, but they seem to have recovered.  

By Blogger crab_lady, at Sat Apr 26, 11:35:00 AM:

My fiance and his grandfather have a long time family fishing business and now set up a trailer in Charlottesville, VA Friday - Sunday. They sell fish (in season), crabs (all year round), and shrimp. They're now selling herring roe if anyone is interested. To order ahead call 703-296-7565 and tell them stephanie sent you.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue May 06, 09:04:00 AM:

I buy Chowan's Best on a regular basis at Smith's Pork Center and Red & White grocery in Dortches, NC just outside of Rocky Mount. $4.95 a can. Good luck!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 06, 08:51:00 AM:

you can purchase chowan's best herring roe at any ukrop's store .

good eating
granny in the know  

By Anonymous Linda, at Tue Jun 02, 12:40:00 PM:

I am in Richmond, VA.........it is the first of June 2009, and I have searched everywhere......called all over the country and no herring or shad roe anywhere............suggestions, please? Linda Peyman at ljp58172@verizon.net
Thanks folks........  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jun 09, 05:00:00 PM:

I live in south central VA and have also grown up eating herring roe. When we moved from Richmond to Martinsville, our relatives would always bring us some when they came to visit (found it @ Ukrops). They have not been able to find it for years. My brother stumbled upon a few cans @ a small store in Moneta, VA. We then researched it & found it for sale on the web. They are out of stock right now. They carry it July thru Christmas. Punch in Chowan's Best Herring Roe, or Perry - Wynns Fish Co. and see if that helps!!!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Aug 28, 07:08:00 PM:

I found Tidewater Herring Roe on clearance on the local Kroger (Norfolk, VA). I have never seen it in any store before. I bought 4 or 5 cans and would love to get more.  

By Blogger southernlady, at Mon Aug 31, 06:53:00 AM:

I found Herring roe at this company and ordered a case of 24 cans for $125 plus $17 shipping. The roe is packed in July only and when it's gone, it's gone. They may have some left, it would be worth a try.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 06, 09:16:00 PM:

Richmond VA - I searched Richmond stores in December to send a few cans to my son in Seattle - not a one to be found. In the early spring I was shopping at the Deltaville Market and saw an open box on top of a Coca-Cola cooler at the end of the check out. The price has jumped seriously since my mom used to buy it but the price was worth it for a special treat for my son who remembers Nanny mixing it with scrambled eggs and served with fried corn bread, for breakfast.  

By Blogger Unknown, at Tue Sep 29, 02:01:00 PM:

I found the Chowan's Best HErring Roe online--the limited supply and seasonal nature of the roe mean that it is now pricey and only available during certain times of the year. Here is the site I found : http://saltherring.home.mchsi.com/roe.htm
The page was updated in July 2009.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Apr 08, 08:00:00 PM:

yes, as a native Virginian, my mother-in-law gave cases to my husband over the years as his Christmas present. We parceled it out. Not in 2009 as the store she had usually bought from, Ukrops no longer had any
interesting blog  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Sep 20, 11:31:00 AM:

I just bought 2 cans of
Chowans Best canned herring roe
for $6.49 a can. It's a first for me in 20 years i was going to place an order for a case of it untill i found a store here in Virginia that sells it in singles.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 28, 10:43:00 AM:

Chowan's Best Herring Roe can be found CURRENTLY at Piggly Wiggly on Hwy 48 in Gaston, NC. This store is only a couple of miles from I-95 and is close to the Va. border. It is a seasonal item and when it is gone, you can't get any more until next season! The price is $6.49 per can.  

By Anonymous Spencer, at Mon Oct 04, 03:45:00 PM:

Chowans herring roe can be ordered from:
Perry-wynns Fish Co.
P O Box 85
Colerain,NC 27924

You have to mail a check. They don't take credit cards.
Smallest order-1/4 case (6 cans) $46.70 which includes shipping.  

By Anonymous Roger Gathright, at Sun Oct 10, 08:18:00 PM:

I saw Chowan's Best roe today at the Food Lion on Patterson Ave, the one near the Goochland County line. A bit pricey at $10.00 for an 8 oz. can! Did not buy it. I,too, was raised on fish roe and eggs in Richmond in the 1950-1970 era.

Roger Gathright
Waynesboro, VA

By Anonymous Maurice Cahn, at Mon Apr 11, 10:00:00 AM:

I lived on Robinson St. in Richmond and ate Tidewater Roe scrambled with eggs almost every morning. I was looking for more but ahter reading your letter, I give up. I was born in Richmond in 1924.
Maurice Cahn
Palm Springs, CA
Thanks and good luck  

By Anonymous Sue of Varina, VA, at Fri Aug 17, 11:39:00 AM:

I live in Central Virginia too and love Chowan's Roe as well. It is now up to $7.99 a can and once or twice a year I treat myself to a can. Out of me and my husband I am the only one that likes it. I was trying to go online and find it hopefully cheaper but I am having trouble finding it online at all. The only store I find it at is Farmer's Foods in Highland Springs, VA and I hope they never stop carrying it because like someone else wrote, it will be a piece of my childhood gone.  

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