Hard to imagine that a story about fish eggs could be “fast-paced,” not to mention prophetic. But this piece of environmental journalism is both.
Carey (Against the Tide, 1999, etc.) traces the rise of the caviar industry and the concomitant decline of the sturgeon. Caviar dates to at least the 13th century, when a Mogol king dined on the eggs at a monastery, though in medieval Russia caviar was not a luxury—even peasants ate the “blackberry jam of tiny globes.” By the late 19th century, the taste for roe had spread to Germany, France, and the US, where it quickly achieved delicacy status and remains one of the most expensive epicurean dishes around: at Manhattan’s upscale Petrossian, says Carey, two ounces of beluga caviar cost well over a hundred dollars. Just a century ago, sturgeon were everywhere, the big kid on the block in most river systems in the northern hemisphere; but now the creatures whose eggs are so delectable have been overfished and are on the brink of extinction. Carey introduces scientists, entrepreneurs, and activists who are trying hard to keep the sturgeon around, though as is often the case with environmental policy, red tape and competing interests mean slow progress. A long tousle over the status of beluga sturgeon under the Endangered Spices Act culminated in 2004 with the listing of the fish as threatened, but the fate of beluga caviar imports to the US is still up in the air. In relating all this, Carey introduces some charming characters, from Petrossian’s head buyer, Eve Vega, to crusading lawyer biologist Frank Chapman. As for the subtitle, don’t be skeptical: this really is a book about desire. It’s about how Americans balance supply and demand, how “we discipline ourselves to measure our desires against finite means.” As such, it’s a book about America in microcosm.
Caviar, it turns out, is not just tasty. In Carey’s hands, it’s luminous.