Did you know that caviar used to be so cheap in the United States that it was given away for free in bars just to encourage patrons to drink? It’s true! Caviar—the delicacy that was once reserved for British royalty—was as cheap as popcorn and peanuts in the U.S. How did such a common food become a symbol of opulence and the epitome of fine dining? Read on to learn the wild and wacky history of caviar.
What is Caviar?
First, let’s get our terminology straight.
Not all fish eggs are caviar.
According to all the regulatory agencies that determine this kind of thing, the word “caviar” refers to the salt-cured, unfertilized eggs of a certain group of fish called sturgeon. The eggs of any other kind of fish are called “roe,” and even though they may be delicious, they aren’t caviar.
Unfortunately, the United States has not been very strict about regulating how the term is used, so the word “caviar” can get confusing in this country. You might see packaging that advertises “salmon caviar” or “trout caviar” when what’s inside is really salmon or trout roe. If that’s what you’re looking for, then great! Just understand that it’s not actual caviar. Don’t get us wrong; we love roe and will gladly serve it to guests or eat it at home. But it’s important to understand what you’re eating and what you’re paying for.
The Weird History of Caviar
People have been enjoying caviar at least as far back as the Crusades in the 1200s and probably much earlier than that. Cultures around the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, especially Russia and Persia (now Iran), harvested caviar from huge sturgeon populations that once swam there. In fact, the word “caviar” came from the Persian word khâvyâr, meaning “egg-bearing.”
When caviar reached Europe in the 1500s, it was all the rage and was generally reserved for royalty and social elites. In Britain, sturgeon were even designated “royal fish” which meant that, by law, any sturgeon that was caught immediately became the property of the monarch.
Meanwhile, in the American colonies, European immigrants discovered that sturgeon were abundant in American waters. In fact, native tribes had been eating sturgeon and their eggs for thousands of years. In the early years of Jamestown (the first permanent English settlement in America) sturgeon and caviar were the primary food that saved the colonists from starvation.
Knowing that sturgeon and caviar could fetch a high price in Europe, the Jamestown colony sent boatloads of sturgeon back to Britain, but the fish were too perishable to survive the long voyage, especially during the hot summer months when sturgeon were plentiful in the James River. As the Virginia colony became more established, sturgeon fell out of favor with the colonists. They considered it food for the lower class, livestock, and slaves.
Caviar’s Rise and Fall (and Rise)
The strange history of caviar took a surprising turn in the mid-1800s when thousands of new European immigrants to the U.S. began to favor sturgeon as a cheap source of meat. At the same time, European supplies of caviar were drying up due to overfishing. If there’s one thing Americans have never failed to do, it’s to identify a demand in the market and make money off it!
Caviar processing plants began springing up along the East Coast. For two decades, America became the leading exporter of caviar to Europe! But, just as Americans drove the passenger pigeon to extinction and decimated the immense herds of buffalo, it didn’t take long to wipe out the sturgeon. From 7 million pounds of sturgeon that were caught in 1887, the East Coast sturgeon populations plummeted until just 20,000 pounds were caught in 1905. By 1989, that number was down to 400 pounds.
In another weird twist, much of that caviar that was shipped to Europe was then reshipped back to America and sold as “Russian caviar” at a higher price. Meanwhile, American caviar that didn’t have that “Russian” label was being given away for free in bars as an inducement for patrons to buy more drinks.
As the East Coast populations of sturgeon disappeared, caviar producers moved on to the Great Lakes and then to the Pacific Northwest where sturgeon populations soon suffered the same fate. Overfishing, water pollution, and habitat loss have plagued all of the world’s sturgeon populations. Today, sturgeon are endangered or threatened everywhere on earth.
But the story isn’t over. For these magnificent fish that have been around since the age of the dinosaurs, these amazing creatures that can live for 100 years and reach sizes over 2,000 pounds, there may be some good news.
A New Hope
In 2022, Iran, Russia, and the other countries bordering the Caspian Sea renewed a ban on the fishing of sturgeon in that body of water. Similar laws and regulations are meant to protect sturgeon populations in the U.S. and many other countries, and these conservation efforts have prevented sturgeon extinction despite a thriving black-market for caviar.
Although America’s wild sturgeon populations have never really recovered, producers have developed other ways to meet demands for caviar. Today, nearly all the caviar consumed or produced in the U.S. comes from surgeon raised on aquafarms. Additionally, American producers have promoted some excellent alternatives to true caviar, including “red salmon caviar” and “golden whitefish caviar.” Political unrest in Russia and Iran, historically the two main suppliers of caviar for most of history, has widened the door for American caviar and caviar substitutes to become more popular.
While you aren’t likely to catch bars giving away free caviar anymore, you can still find quality caviar or caviar alternatives at reasonable prices if you know where to look. Keep an eye on this page next month to see our tips on how to buy, prepare, serve, and enjoy quality caviar.