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5 may 2011

Nichola Fletcher's Caviar is in the Reaktion Books Edible series, though it might have fit just as well into the Animal series as Sturgeon. Caviar is a processed food, but it is so strongly associated with the life-cycles, habitats, and fate of a single kind of fish that it can't really be separated conceptually from that fish.

I've never seen a sturgeon in the wild, but that's because I was born too late. My high-school days were spent in South Jersey, not far from a historic fishing ground for sturgeon. In the 19th century, fishermen took huge numbers of sturgeon out of the Delaware River and shipped their roe overseas to the Dieckmann & Hansen caviar factory in Hamburg. Dieckmann & Hansen tinned the roe in cans marked "Romanoff" and shipped them back to the United States as ostensibly Russian delicacies. The economy has been global, and more invested in simulacra, for longer than we realize.

Of course, one reason I never saw a sturgeon in South Jersey is that the caviar boom of the 19th century drove the fish to local extinction there, and in many other places. Sturgeon were once so common in American waters that their meat was a typical poverty food and their great hulks often a "by-catch" annoyance. Sturgeon and their eggs rarely found markets at the same time. Fletcher tells many stories of fish being discarded and their roe collected, and many others of roe being discarded so that sturgeon flesh could be sold. Much depends on local tastes and fashions, not to say fashion crazes.

We associate caviar with the depravities of the ultra-rich. "Caviary to the general," Shakespeare called something too refined for the populace. Yet in the early Soviet period, Russians could chow down on caviar sandwiches for lunch. Like oysters, caviar has a double nature as peasant food and exotic treat. Fish eggs per se are not very rare; you can go into any Middle Eastern market and buy a big jar of "red caviar" (codfish tarama) for a couple of bucks. And before the damming of major Russian rivers during the Stalin years, sturgeon were plentiful in the waters leading to the Caspian Sea.

Soviets, and later, Iranians of the Islamic Republic have practiced the most sustainable wild-sturgeon fishing of modern times. Uncoincidentally, both regimes are command economies with a need for hard currency and dictatorial control of local practices. The free market tends to drive prized species to rapid extinction. An interesting wrinkle in the relation of Iran to caviar is that the sturgeon, source of the highest-grade "black caviar," has traditionally never been halal (it is still not kosher). Sturgeon, like eels, lack visible scales. The ayatollahs, faced with proscribing a leading export of the impious Shah, took another look at Caspian sturgeons. They found a few microscopic scales, and now beluga is halal.

Fletcher, Nichola. Caviar: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2010.