When you think of caviar, you probably don’t think of an all-American product like cheeseburgers, tater tots, or apple pie.
Instead, your mind may wander to the opulent feasts enjoyed by Russian oligarchs in the 19th century or exclusive parties for super-rich Sheiks in Dubai.
Therefore, it might be surprising to learn that some of the world’s most delicious and desirable caviar has come from the territory of the contiguous United States! That’s right, the lower 48 states have been a top location for harvesting, processing, and selling top-quality caviar for centuries – who would have thought?
The history of American caviar is a fascinating one, and there are many unique aspects to these native sturgeons that make them so popular in the modern marketplace.
Be warned, however: many American caviars aren’t really caviar at all – it’s essential to know the difference if you wish to become a true connoisseur, or simply avoid getting swindled!
Now that the great caviar revival is in full swing, let’s talk about how American caviar came to be. We’ll discuss species, locations, characteristics, and flavors, and clear the air about some domestic roe products that sometimes get mixed up in the caviar conversation.
The Story of American Caviar
Humanity has been enamored with sturgeon roe for thousands of years, and some of the earliest records of civilization include a reference to salt-curing these precious beads for other-worldly enjoyment.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans to the continental United States, native populations enjoyed the meat of sturgeons as a dietary staple, although we aren’t certain whether they utilized roe in the same way. Generally speaking, caviar was unique to the east until somewhat recently.
The Caspian Sea, Black Sea, and rivers of eastern Russia and China were prime locations for sturgeon in centuries past - in many cases leading to overfishing and the endangerment of key species such as Beluga and Kaluga.
Sustainability wasn’t exactly a top priority for the fishermen and traders of the ancient world, and we now see heavy restrictions and regulations on the quantity of sturgeon that can be extracted in these regions.
When demand for caviar came to a head at the turn of the 19th century, American entrepreneurs stepped up domestic caviar production, going all-in on harvesting regional species.
For a time, American caviar was so abundant and affordable, it would be dished out like salted nuts at bars and pubs throughout the country. Can you imagine snacking on endless caviar as you sip beer and whiskey on the frontier? Talk about a different world!
Once Europeans caught wind of the caviar boom happening out west, an international marketplace was ignited, and much of the “Russian” caviar sold in the 20th century was actually American in origin.
As markets matured and more sustainable aquaculture practices were introduced in the 1900s, caviar became an authentic American delicacy widely appreciated at home and worldwide.
Genuine American Caviar
The sturgeon species seen across the United States are diverse and impressive. With so much coastline, so many lakes, and countless rivers throughout the region, sturgeons thrive in these many ecosystems, each with distinguishing features.
Topping the list of the most famous American caviar is Hackleback, the species also known as the Shovelnose Sturgeon, Sand Sturgeon, or Switchtail. This is the only commercially fished sturgeon in the USA, found abundantly in the Missouri River and Mississippi River systems.
Hackleback offers smaller pearls than the famed Beluga or tremendous Kaluga caviar, but the taste is comparable, and the price point is relatively appealing.
Another popular American caviar comes from the Wild Atlantic Sturgeon, which can be found in northern regions along the east coast, down to the mid-Atlantic inlets of Virginia. This species is heavily conserved in modern times, though some farm-raised varieties are becoming more common.
Going west, we find the sought-after California White Sturgeon, also known as the Pacific Sturgeon. Once again, fishing this species is banned, so more fisheries are learning to farm the sturgeon at a sustainable rate to produce exquisite caviar.
Some species, such as the Alabama Sturgeon, are endangered right up to the brink of extinction. Advocacy groups are hard at work trying to bring these peripheral American sturgeon species back to full force in the future.
Now, we’re looking at a complex set of factors that are moving American caviar back into the spotlight. Eco-friendly aquaculture practices improved by leaps and bounds, and caviar producers are constantly gaining more knowledge, wisdom, and scientific insight into the best methods to raise sturgeons for quality and quantity.
There is also a growing global network of sturgeon fisheries built on these best practices developed in the west. American caviar is once again finding its footing as a legitimate economic powerhouse moving forward.
Don’t Be Fooled (Read Those Labels!)
Looking at the sheer variety and rich history of these domestic sturgeon, there’s definitely a lot to love about American caviar.
However, if you’re brand new to the world of caviar and want to get your foot in the door, it’s important to tread carefully when shopping “American.”
The main point of contention is semantic. American caviar, in many cases, refers to any type of roe from American fish species, and this is where things get a bit murky. Depending on who you ask, this is a less-than-accurate definition of what caviar should truly be.
For example, you may browse your local specialty store to find products labeled “Paddlefish Caviar,” “Bowfin Caviar,” or even “American Black Caviar.” These products might look good, taste good, and likely have a very tantalizing price tag. Nothing wrong with that, right?
We hate to break it to you, but true caviar is not from Bowfin, Capelin, or Spoonbills. Even though these fish might appear to be close relatives of the sturgeon, these aren’t the “real deal” caviar products you might be after.
Indeed, American caviar producers play it a bit fast and loose when it comes to labeling and marketing their products to the public. It’s not the end of the world – and it’s not illegal – but you’ve been warned!
In Europe, on the other hand, they take things more seriously and will not even tease the term caviar unless the fish roe is 100% certified as originating from a species of sturgeon.
We may just chalk it up to the American art of advertising - but be wary when shopping for caviar in the States and remember what those labels really mean before you buy.
True Caviar is a Cut Above
There’s no harm in trying out a few different inexpensive roes to get a feel for the food and see how you like it, but just remember that real caviar is in another category entirely.
If you decide it’s time to try some authentic caviar, your best option these days is to go online and order from a reputable distributor. Not only will you get a much better price, but the product is going to be fresher and typically of a higher quality compared to the stock in stores.
Whether you stick with genuine American caviar or opt for a luxurious Kaluga Hybrid, you can’t go wrong by ordering from a premium online marketplace.