Shad Happens: Planking and Politicking in Rural Virginia

BY Kwame Holman  April 19, 2012 at 11:00 AM EDT

Ruritan Club Shad Planking; photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

Joe Crockett pulls nails from smoked shad at the 64th annual Ruritan Club Shad Planking in Wakefield, Va. Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call.

Updated April 20, 2:30 p.m.

Politics wasn’t always a main item on the menu at the annual Ruritan Club Shad Planking, a tradition in central Virginia dating to before 1948.

Still, every elected Virginia governor since the days of the final Roosevelt administration has made sure to get to the modest rural town of Wakefield, 35 miles south of Richmond on the third Wednesday in April, to walk among fellow Virginians and try the planked shad.

The bony fish is splayed on old oak* boards, held down with steel nails, cooked and then smoked for hours above a trench fire — the same way native Americans did it when they caught shad in local waters before the settlers arrived, according to this year’s Shad Planking master of ceremonies.

The emcee, local equipment executive Stan Brantley, told me that the event has always been about helping raise money for local community groups, but he added that politics has always been a part of it, too.

Brantley said men came to talk politics at the shad planking in its earliest days, and that continued after women were allowed to join in years later.

In recent election cycles, candidates for Congress and the Virginia governorship began to treat the event as a must-do. And several plankings featured highly publicized encounters and good-natured ribbing between political rivals.

For Republican George Allen, a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator who aims to win his seat back in November, the Ruritan Shad Planking is one of the three most important dates on his calendar every year.

“I look at the calendar and write in my wife’s birthday, then I do our anniversary. The third Wednesday in April is firmly affixed in my calendar…every year, it just seems to get better and better. The pines grow a little taller. The crowds are more enthusiastic and hardy,” Allen said. “And it is a more diverse and inclusive event than ever before…everyone is welcome, and that’s the way it should be: people from all parties and all backgrounds coming here to see longtime friends and make new ones.”

This year, the event was a little less bipartisan. Allen’s Senate race rival — Democrat Tim Kaine, who also served as governor, skipped it.

“We contacted the Kaine campaign a couple of times, but we weren’t able to get an answer as to their plans, so in February we just had to go ahead with our program,” Brantley said. Kaine was campaigning in another part of the state, and his campaign did not even dispatch volunteers for the longstanding sign wars.

The few hundred participants this year were mostly Republicans — and supporters of Allen, who delivered well-received remarks, including a pledge to push for oil exploration off Virginia’s coast and his hope of casting “the deciding vote in the Senate to repeal ‘Obamacare’ and replace it with personalized health savings accounts.”

Brantley had a pledge, too: “This has always been a bipartisan event, and next year and the years to come we’re going to work to see that it is.”

Not long after our post went live, a Kaine campaign aide got in touch to note that the former governor had a packed schedule of events in different parts of the state. Among those events was an endorsement from a national veterans’ advocacy organization. The aide noted the governor has traveled frequently to the region and would be back this election season.

*This post was corrected to reflect the type of wood used for the planking.