East End Eats: Caviar, Russian Old World and American New World

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Photograph from shapeshift on Flickr

Old habits die hard, especially when it comes to holiday foods. So, despite international treaties to restrict the selling of eggs from beleaguered wild sturgeon and possible Russian mafia involvement in getting questionable caviar to market, my mother presented our family with her signature black Russian malossol tin at Christmas. The contents emitted a fishy scent that nearly turned the stomach of one pregnant guest. The eggs were soft on the tongue, lacking that refreshing pop. It mostly went uneaten.

Fortunately, my mother always buys in duplicate—or triplicate—for just these sorts of situations. When the traditional Russian stuff failed, she presented jars of hackleback, paddlefish and salmon roe, all made in the U.S. and all impeccably fresh, based on the subtle scent and firm texture.

Most seafood shops on the East End have given up stocking the dubious—and impossibly pricey—Old World stuff, but now offer American roe year round. Stuart’s Seafood in Amagansett sells paddlefish and salmon roe, while Cavaniola’s Gourmet offers hackleback, paddlefish and salmon roe. The American Hotel in Sag Harbor offers a caviar plate that proprietor Ted Conklin calls “a little overkill,” including chopped egg whites, chopped egg yolks, capers, lemon, blinis, and toast to accompany the royal ossetra caviar from Petrossian, the importer than nimbly shifted from hawking the Old World stuff to being a major investor in American farm-raised sturgeon and sturgeon caviar.

Conklin, a founder of the local Slow Food convivium, who has watched food trends wax and wane, suggested that high-ticket items like imported caviar may be a bit “déclassé” given the current global economic and ecological situation.

American hackleback is a cousin of the European sturgeon and native to the Missouri-Mississippi River system, while American paddlefish is a sturgeon-like fish with a long spatula-like snouts also native to the same river system. American fish farmers are also raising several European sturgeon species as well as White sturgeon, another American native sometimes called Pacific sturgeon, Oregon sturgeon, Columbia sturgeon, Sacramento sturgeon, and California white sturgeon.

For those East Enders who do some of their provisioning west of the Shinnecock Canal, Russ & Daughters offers an array of American caviars, including mild California-raised Caspian-style sturgeon caviar, wild Alaskan salmon roe, and even Caribbean flying fish roe with wasabi (of the Super Heeb sandwich fame). Like the Russian product that Russ & Daughters used to sell, tins of American caviar are tasted and a fair number are rejected before being hand-packed into smaller containers. “It’s all good enough to enjoy with just a spoon and some vodka,” said fourth generation costermonger Josh Russ Tupper.

Uptown, Zabar’s reigns as perhaps the city’s biggest seller of caviar, having won the caviar price wars of the 1980s. “Salmon caviar, which I think is as delicious, if not more delicious, than all the sturgeon caviars, is renewable and it’s cheap,” said Saul Zabar. Salmon roe sells for $38 a pound at Zabar’s website, compared to their highest priced Azerbaijan Wild Osetra Caviar, which retails for $260 for 1¾ ounces.)

Way back in 2003, a prescient Julia Moskin sung the praises of salmon roe—the big red fish eggs which the Japanese import from us en masse and consider superior to the little black beads.

Moskin offers a recipe for fried potatoes and salmon caviar that is sure to make you salivate. And for a bit of literary inspiration, check out this short, personal memoir by Carmel Berman Reingold about the life-lessons her parents taught her through caviar:

“I NO longer remember if the taste pleased me, but I remember the event, and my father’s advice: ‘Never put caviar on a cracker. Terrible. Dark bread is good, or toast, and spread it on as thickly as you can. Better one piece of bread with all the caviar you have instead of many slices with just a few grains.’”

About the author: Brian Halweil is the editor of Edible East End, the magazine that celebrates the harvest of the Hamptons and the North Fork. He is also publisher of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. He writes about the things we eat from the old whaling village of Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his wife tend a home garden and orchard and go clamming when the tides allow.

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