If you try to visit the town of Caviar, New Jersey, today, don’t rely on your GPS — it’s now known as the Bayside Tract, a marshy backwater on the outskirts of tiny Greenwich, on the banks of the Delaware River in southern Jersey. Amongst the farm fields, bait supply stores, and nature trails through the marshes, there’s no longer any trace of what was once the caviar capital of the world. Nothing remains of the dozens of riverside dormitories that once housed hundreds of men, nor the processing sheds in which they slaughtered tons of sturgeon for their eggs. There’s no trace left, either, of the railroad tracks that once transported those eggs away from Caviar and onto mother-of-pearl spoons and sour cream-topped blinis at stylish restaurants and parties all around the world. But in the 1880s, Caviar, New Jersey, supplied more of the world’s caviar than anywhere else in the world. So, what happened?
In the latest episode of Gastropod, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley crack open the history of this briny luxury, which went from something that Russian peasants ate as a form of religious penance to the one of the most expensive foods on Earth, selling for up to thousands of dollars an ounce today. The boomtown of Caviar, New Jersey, may have only lasted a few decades, but its story encapsulates much of humanity’s relationship with the sturgeon and its coveted eggs.
Caviar eggs come from the sturgeon, whose shark-like skeleton, spiky armor, and odd blubbery lips have remained virtually unchanged since it swam around with dinosaurs. The most famous species — Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga — are native to the Caspian Sea and its surrounding rivers, but there are sturgeon species everywhere. When European colonists arrived on North America’s east coast in the 1600s, they found Atlantic sturgeon swimming abundantly in its rivers; according to Inga Saffron, journalist and author of the book Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, “the Delaware River was so jammed with procreating sturgeon in the spring that Philadelphia ferry passengers were treated to acrobatic displays of leaping fish, and occasionally had to scurry to avoid one nose-bombing the deck.”
Native Americans ate sturgeon often, though the settlers didn’t necessarily share the natives’ fondness for the fish’s strong, oily flavor. Its meat was reserved for the poor and lower-class, including slaves and Native Americans, and its eggs were fit only to feed to livestock. “Farmers along the Delaware, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, if they went out and they caught a sturgeon, they would throw the roe to the pigs,” says Saffron. “That was just this sort of Western European attitude about this food they didn’t understand.”
That all changed in the 1850s. A wave of new, impoverished European immigrants came to favor sturgeon meat as an inexpensive protein, leading Hudson River fishermen to nickname it “Albany beef.” Meanwhile, back in Europe, caviar had become the height of chic: In the late 1860s, German entrepreneurs created a thriving caviar business on the Elbe River, in Hamburg. But by 1876, thanks to overfishing and increasing water pollution, the native German sturgeon population had crashed.
Enter Bendix Blohm, an immigrant from Hamburg who arrived in New York with plans for a pickled sturgeon business. When that proved more difficult and less profitable than he expected, Blohm moved to the calmer waters of the Delaware and set up shop in Penns Grove, New Jersey. He recruited the help of a few German New Yorkers to expand his business in a new direction: preparing sturgeon eggs for export to his caviar-hungry homeland. By the spring of 1870, Blohm was exporting caviar back to Hamburg by the barrel.
Before long, the other fishermen along the Delaware, who had historically thrown away sturgeon that became tangled in their nets, took notice of Blohm’s booming business and joined in. Sturgeon-processing shacks began popping up along the Delaware’s New Jersey shoreline, alongside hotels, a post office, restaurants, and a new rail line, all built to support the booming business in sturgeon eggs. Fishermen started calling the new town Caviar.
Much like the Gold Rush a few decades prior, the run on American caviar was brief and spectacular. For a short time, North America was exporting more caviar to Europe than Russia — and Caviar, New Jersey, was the source of most of that. According to Saffron, “some of New Jersey’s caviar even went to Russia.” The 400 or so inhabitants of Caviar must have felt as though they had won the lottery; even a slow season would bring in upwards of $2 million in today’s dollars. But the vein that fishermen had tapped couldn’t last forever.
“There was so much money to be made,” Saffron says. “The fishing was so intense. And the environmental devastation was so enormous that sturgeon were just wiped out in this really short span of time.”
In the 1870s, Saffron told Gastropod, fishermen caught an average of 65 sturgeon each time they hauled in their nets. In just 10 years, that number had been slashed in half. And, by 1900, fishermen’s nets started coming up empty. The sturgeon that should have been filling them no longer existed, vanished into the curve of mother-of-pearl spoons. According to New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, as late as 1890, there were an estimated 180,000 spawning females in the Delaware River each year; today, that number can be as low as three.
When the fish disappeared, so did the industry. European caviar dealers closed up their American outposts, and many fishermen packed up their nets and moved west, chasing sturgeon in the Great Lakes and the Pacific. The American caviar boom was over almost as quickly as it had begun. All that remains of the town of Caviar is the rotting remains of the pier from which millions and millions of fish eggs had been dispatched to Europe.
The same pattern that all but extinguished the Atlantic sturgeon has been repeated over and over; today, sturgeon are the most threatened group of fish in the world, thanks to overfishing as well as water pollution, warming water, and dams that block them from reaching their breeding grounds. So, are we facing a future without caviar? Tune in to the latest Gastropod episode to find out, as well as explore how gourmands might be able to enjoy a more sustainable version of their favorite briny treat.