Roe to Heaven

Take a crash course in the history of caviar, from its days serving royals in the Middle Ages to its five-cent beer parings in East Coast saloons.

Caviar, or at least the roe of female fish as food, may just be older than civilization. The cured form, as we know it now, is thought to have originated in China thousands of years ago. Early Persians enjoyed it and thought it had “medicinal qualities.” Ancient Greek and Roman literature contains many references to the beautiful presentations of the “Black Berries” served at banquets. Caviar even survived the darkness of collapsed civilization. During the Middle Ages, only Popes and Feudal Lords were treated to the pleasures of the “Royal Fish” and its roe, while in England, sturgeon and caviar were reserved exclusively for the king.
New World settlers soon discovered sturgeon to be one of the most prolific fish in North American with seven of the world’s 25 species densely populating the land. Servants often had written into their contracts that sturgeon couldn’t be served “more than three days a week.”

Sturgeons populated all of the northern hemisphere, but nowhere were they more common than in our newly developing nation. In fact, the fish were considered a nuisance and thrown into fields and stacked like logs alongside riverbanks to make way for the new roads and bridges.

By the 19th Century, enterprising Americans had created the world’s largest commercial caviar industry, producing 90 percent of the world’s caviar with 60,000 pounds annually coming from Lake Michigan alone. Caviar was so common it was even a staple in Army commissaries, traveling westward with the cavalry as it built forts and tamed the land. Back East, in big city saloons, caviar was given away free with five cent beers and nicknamed “Albany Beef.”

Sadly, little was understood of the biology of sturgeons, and seemingly endless populations became nearly extinct. By 1910, American caviar production was stopped.
In recent times, however, American caviar has made a comeback. Lake Sturgeon caviar is more delicious than Beluga, and delicious Hackleback sturgeon caviar rivals Osetra in flavor. The distantly related Paddlefish produces silken grey, complex-flavored eggs, while black Bowfin roe has come into vogue. And there is no shortage of salmon roe caviar or the bright yellow, crunchy Whitefish eggs, which have become more popular.

In the late 1970s, two avid fishermen and hobbyist caviar-makers proceeded to change the face and use of American caviar. Rachel and Carolyn Collins formed a caviar company that specializes only in American Fresh Water fish. Known for their inventive style, they expand the use of caviar by making them suitable for recipe components through smoking and flavoring. They turned salmon roe into gravlox caviar, smoking Whitefish roe and even producing a dessert caviar. The Collins brand caviar has intrigued chefs across the country, and they recently expanded into Australia and Asia via “The Good Grub Hub.”
From its humble beginnings and food fit for a king, to its decline and recent re-emergence to the culinary apex, caviar remains a food for the ages.