American Caviar … Only in America
Caviar is arguably one of the finest things to please the palate of food connoisseurs. Harvested from the prehistoric sturgeon, a fish found more commonly in the Caspian and Black Seas, it was once considered to be something coming solely from countries like Iran and Russia. For years now, Americans have entered the market and are now producing caviar—with traditional mother-of-pearl spoons—that rivals foreign competitors.
We can only truly appreciate the paradox of the American caviar boom when we look back at how caviar came to be appreciated centuries ago.
American Caviar Renaissance
The Persians were the first to enjoy caviar. They dubbed it khav-yar meaning “cake of strength,” which is where the English moniker caviar originated.1
Aristotle mentioned that it was served at banquets already in the fourth century B.C.
While the Romans consumed it more for medicinal purposes, Russian peasants ate it for its protein. The Russian tsars first recognized its noble quality. It was appreciated so much in England during the Middle Ages that King Edward II dubbed sturgeon a “royal fish” and made it part of the imperial treasury.2 This contributed to it being catapulted into its status as an internationally recognized delicacy.
Due to many factors, especially overharvesting, caviar is very expensive to produce. It became more so in 2006 when the FDA banned caviar imports due to the dwindling sturgeon population. Then something curious happened.
American companies started producing caviar from sturgeon which also inhabits waters of the Pacific Northwest and South Atlantic regions of North America. Others went further and started elaborate farm-raised systems. In the first three years of their efforts, they dished up over fifteen tons of this gastronomic wonder.
Their Biggest Customer Is Russia!
The largest producer is Sterling Caviar in Elverta, California. The firm began as a simple fish farm in 1973 by Jacob Stolt-Nielsen, a native Norwegian fisherman. In 1988 he began raising white sturgeon and, like other American companies, used a sophisticated aquaculture process. This technique not only produces good quality caviar but also replenishes the dwindling “royal fish” population.
There are those who say that farmed caviar is inferior because it has a muddy flavor that cannot match the clean wild-caught variety. Armen Petrossian does not agree. It so happens that he is an expert in caviar and one of the largest buyers in the world.
He argues that although sturgeon farming is a new industry, the quality is improving so much that “good farmed caviar is virtually indistinguishable from the wild variety.”3 His Paris-based caviar brand sources all of its white sturgeon from farms in California.4
This helps explain Sterling’s success and why it is the leading producer of caviar in the country. They also ship overseas and, ironically enough, Russia is one of their biggest customers.
“If We Can Get Caviar From North Carolina, Then What Can’t We Get?”
Of the twenty-seven different varieties of sturgeon that produce the roe (fish eggs), beluga is considered “the king of caviar.” Coming in at a close second, however, are the eggs of the ossetra sturgeon, which can be found off the coast of North Carolina.
Here, the paradox of American caviar becomes even more amusing. The Tar-Heel State is most known for Nascar, Pepsi Cola and Krispy Kreme Donuts. Many would be surprised to find out that it is also home to Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon founded in 2005 by Joe Doll and friend Bill White.
Mr. Doll, a former cargo pilot, conceived the idea after trips to Russia where he noticed the declining sturgeon population. His entrepreneurial side noticed an opportunity to produce caviar locally, after the 2006 FDA embargo. Along with his good friend Bill, they started Atlantic Caviar which is nestled in the pastures of Happy Valley, an hour drive north of Charlotte.
Since sturgeon grow slowly their first hatchlings placed in tanks in 2005, took seven years to start producing roe. During that time, Bill White passed away. While he did not get to see the results of his work, the company he helped start became richly successful as the largest producer of Russian sturgeon and ossetra caviar in North America.
It was particularly appreciated by Clark Barlowe, the master chef and owner of the Heirloom Restaurant in Charlotte. His idea of an eatery with an all North Carolina menu was inspired by the excellence of Atlantic’s caviar.
Upon finding such a thing right around the corner, he thought, “If we can get caviar from North Carolina, then what can’t we get?”
Sterling was eventually bought out by Marshalberg Farms which now has two locations in Lenoir and Smyrna, North Carolina. There are also American companies that harvest roe from wild-caught sturgeon found in the Bluegrass State.
“Y’all Want Some Caviar?”
Lewis Shuckman is, in many ways, a typical Kentuckian. He has the gift of gab, a strong Southern accent and loads of enthusiasm for what he does. When his grandfather Issa first opened Shuckman’s Fish Company and Smokery in 1919 he never imagined it would one day be selling caviar.
During a telephone interview, Lewis explained how most Americans are unaware of the fact that while sixty percent of caviar used to be harvested from the Caspian Sea, sixty percent is now produced right here in America.
Caviar doesn’t have to be expensive to be good, he claims. “I knew we had a good product, right here in our own back yard with an acceptable price.” They get their fish from Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley and Lake Cumberland, from which the eggs are harvested, cleaned and salted to perfection.
Selling caviar in a state that is more known for its burgoo and barbeque was hard going at first. Lewis explained the reaction he got when he knocked on doors of restaurants and clubs in the Louisville area. He described the “deer-in-the-headlights” look from people when he asked a simple question: “Y’all want some caviar?”
His break came when he met Jim Gerhardt, who was then the master chef at the Oakroom Restaurant inside the palatial Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville. Mr. Gerhardt, the first and only person in Kentucky to earn a AAA Five-Star Diamond rating, saw the potential of local products and helped start Kentucky fine dining, the bluegrass version of a farm-to-table menu. They ended up serving his caviar, and Lewis has gone on to get the attention of caviar lovers both here and abroad.
“It Tastes Like Russian Caviar”
His most interesting customers were some Ukrainian caviar experts who came down on a tour and scheduled a stop at Shuckmans. With true Southern hospitality, Lewis purchased a bottle of vodka and some Kentucky bourbon in anticipation of their arrival.
The group’s translator became frustrated when the loquacious Lewis spoke too fast for her to keep up. She eventually threw up her arms and walked away. It did not matter because, by then, they were able to communicate in the universal language that comes from the same love for excellence.
After eating five pounds of caviar, the real taste test came when one of the Ukrainians bypassed the cracker and put a glob of caviar directly on his hand. He wanted to experience the flavor without anything getting in the way.
After tasting Lewis’ trademark Kentucky Spoonfish Caviar, Antonina Slobodchuk, another visitor who had come to America to learn the “ins and out of the fish business,” was very impressed.
“It tastes like Russian caviar, but the way he presents it,” she said, “with all that excitement, it’s so, so, American.”5 It must be noted that this was the reaction of someone who had tasted the best caviar in the world.
Caviar is by no means a delicacy found solely in the United States. But the fact that quality caviar is being produced here, even in states that are more commonly known for Hollywood, barbeque, donuts and Pepsi, is a paradox.
It is for this reason that one can only imagine the surprise of the former French President, François Hollande, during a 2014 visit to America. As he was being feted at the White House, he was served ossetra caviar… from Illinois.
3. Wendell Steavenson, “Why is Caviar So Expensive,” Financial Times, February 15, 2019
5. Jeffrey Gentleman, “Humble Paddlefish Fulfills Southerner’s Caviar Dream,” The New York Times, July 20, 2003