While the rest of us order our eggs sunny-side up, over easy, poached, scrambled or boiled, the United States’ ultra-rich and super-posh have always liked their eggs — fish eggs, that is — one way best: on mother-of-pearl spoons.
But will the salty-treat-craving silver-spoon set soon have to trade in its caviar for bacon bits?
Caviar has long been a badge of conspicuous consumption, a synonym for luxurious living — and even the hoi polloi know that beluga caviar represents the best of the batch, the pinnacle of creature comforts.
But now those in the lap of luxury are facing a potential shortage as a recent U.S. ban on beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea region — the world’s prime caviar-producing area — is forcing American restaurants and retailers to dip into dwindling stockpiles of their black gold.
“Beluga sturgeon [the fish that produce beluga caviar] are extremely low in numbers, and the U.S. is one of the largest importers of caviar,” said Dan Erickson, conservation-fishery scientist with the World Conservation Society. "If you reduce the market, then you're hopefully going to reduce fishing mortality on a species."
But good news for a species means bad news for U.S. caviar lovers. Until the ban, the United States was the largest consumer of beluga caviar in the world, making up an estimated 60 percent of the international market for beluga caviar, followed by the European Union and Japan, according to Laura Noguchi, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Today, a kilogram of wild Caspian Sea beluga caviar can fetch over $8,000 (or $40 for a small spoonful) in the United States. Beluga sturgeon, the largest fish in freshwater, can weigh in at over two tons, and a yearly catch of only a dozen or so accounts for nearly the entire annual supply up for international trade.
It's a long way from caviar's humble origins.
Sturgeon were harvested and enjoyed for centuries in central Asia and Russia, but by the late 19th century, Americans had acquired a taste for sturgeon roe, or eggs, when it turned out that the local varieties, much smaller than beluga sturgeon, also provided a tasty meal — and lots of it.
In the early 20th century, caviar was so plentiful that saloon keepers in upstate New York often served it in bowls like bartenders do with peanuts today. Sometimes they’d even sprinkle it in the beer in hopes that the salty victuals would make drinkers thirstier.
Overfishing put an end to the caviar salad days in the U.S., just as it did in the Caspian Sea region — but it would probably disturb today’s Donald Trumps and P. Diddys to learn that the delicacy they so conspicuously consume as a sign of their own sophistication and wealth was once the early-20th-century equivalent of pickled eggs.
The Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea in September of last year, followed by a ban on Black Sea beluga.
In January, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) refused to approve the quotas they were given for wild-harvested caviar for the year. If CITES reconfirms its position in the next few weeks, as the caviar-harvesting season gets under way in earnest, it could mean the end of international trade on all wild-harvested caviar in the world, not just beluga into the U.S.
To date, M. David Magnotta, owner of Caviar Russe in New York, said the beluga ban hasn’t affected sales at his restaurant or retail business. Estimates predict that American stocks of beluga caviar should last until early 2007.
For those who can’t afford to dip into those dwindling supplies, there’s always aquaculture — caviar from farm-raised sturgeon — which may not carry the panache of wild-harvested caviar but is gaining more respect from connoisseurs.
Style.com, the online home of Vogue and W magazine, recently recommended Tsar Nicoulai, which they described as "a Northern California-based company that produces world-class roe that's perfectly legal.
"The caviar is made domestically on a sustainable farm and, unlike the off-limits stuff, it won't burn a Siberia-sized hole in your wallet. With classics like tawny Estate Osetra, as well as flavored varieties like Wasabi Whitefish, we bet you won't miss your banned Beluga," says the Style.com expert.
But maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Paris Hilton to scarf down a chicken egg once in a while instead.