Planked: Sabato skewers at shad fest

Some people go to the Wakefield Ruritan Club's annual Shad Planking to enjoy the bony fish that fed the colonists. Those people are in a decided minority.

Most of this year's estimated 2,000 attendees came for the politicking– and the beer that flows from candidates' trucks. "It's the blue-collar Foxfield," said one wag.

For 55 years, anybody who's anybody in state politics has flocked to Wakefield for the bipartisan event.

That wasn't the case at the 56th Shad Planking on April 21.

Thanks to the gridlock in the General Assembly, most state legislators wisely decided to forego the fun and instead attempt to pass a budget.

Democrats ceded the field to Republicans, and even Dem gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine stayed in Richmond, although his likely Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore, made the shad scene.

The 56th annual event broke tradition again when it asked UVA pundit Larry Sabato to speak– the first "non-politician to be planked at the Shad Planking," noted former Lt. Governor John Hagar in his introduction.

The audience seemed impressed by Sabato's star power, and fans lined up to say hello before the speeches began. "Look, they're ignoring everybody else, even Kilgore," marveled real estate broker Jim Blandford from Powhatan, pointing to the stage where Sabato was joined by the attorney general and former Governor Gerry Baliles.

"I'm breaking another tradition," Sabato told the beer- and bourbon-soaked crowd. "Everything you hear from this podium will be true."

Sabato mercilessly skewered the General Assembly and its inability to pass a budget in 100 days, comparing it to the 24 days it took Jefferson to write and get the Declaration of Independence approved or the six days of Biblical creation. "How long does it take to write a budget?" he asked.

He did point to what the legislators have accomplished, such as banning teen nudist camps and squirrel hunting in Floyd County between September and February.

Calling it the most acrimonious session he'd witnessed, Sabato ripped, "I can't tell if I'm watching the General Assembly or the Jerry Springer show."

And state politics have been so embarrassing that the tongue-in-cheek Sabato announced he'd considered running for governor on campaign slogans such as, "Sabato: How much worse can it get?"

The two real gubernatorial candidates didn't escape his lambasting. Sabato said Governor Mark Warner, last year's speaker, only let "Tiny Tim" out to cut ribbons, and that "Clodhopper Kilgore" was so concerned about his southwest Virginia accent that he was going to have his campaign speeches "subtitled in English."

Kilgore did not make a speech, nor did he partake of the shad. "I'm from western Virginia," he explained.

But he wasn't alone in eschewing the shad. Even Gene Brittle, the man who's been in charge of the event for 30 years, doesn't eat the oily fish. "I think my mother gave me too much cod liver oil when I was young," he explained.

Brittle demonstrated how the shad, imported this year from North Carolina, is nailed on oak planks and turned away from the fire so the fish seals onto the board. It's salted and smoked for hours, basted at one-hour intervals with a special sauce: Worchestershire, butter, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and secret ingredients that come in yellow, green, and white boxes. "One's the antidote to the secret ingredient," said Brittle.

He admitted the Ruritans have considered serving something else, but then, the event is called the Shad Planking, making it a little late to try an easier-to-eat main dish.

It turns out that a successful shad planking is weather dependent. Brittle recalled the disaster from the year it was overcast with no wind: "The smoke was going nowhere and we sent a couple of people to the hospital for smoke inhalation."

This year, the Ruritans cooked 1,600 pounds of shad and 1,200 pounds of whiting with no casualties.

Serious fish lovers lined up for the shad roe, which was deep fried and looked like a hushpuppy. "Be careful of the hot sauce," warned one of the servers who was handing out the sadly overcooked delicate eggs.

William "Snapper" Harris from Hanover County has been coming since 1961. "I hate politics," he says, but he remembers Shad Planking landmarks, such as the first woman (that's when port-a-johns were added to the event) and the first black person to attend.

Now, the event is more diverse, and even African Americans were sporting the "I support Confederate History Month" stickers passed out by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Snapper Harris' 40-plus-year attendance string isn't even close to a Shad Planking record. That honor goes to 101-year-old E. Floyd Yates from Powhatan, who used to come to Wakefield to hunt and has been to every planking. He gets a special parking place close to the stage and says he enjoyed Sabato's speech.

"I think everyone in the General Assembly should resign," said Yates, who served 12 years in the House of Delegates.

Even the largely Republican crowd didn't seem to disagree with Sabato's barbs and his call for nonpartisan redistricting. In fact, for many, Sabato was a relief from the traditional political stump speeches.

"We had as good a response and attention as I've seen," said promotion chairman Stan Brantley.

After Sabato's speech, fans lined up for his autograph while the rest of the crowd melted away to the fields that serve as a parking lot.

Only the crowd at the Jack Daniels booth seemed unwilling to call it a day at the 56th Plad Shanking.

With legislators busy not passing a budget in Richmond, Charlottesville's Larry Sabato stole the show.