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The Caviar Con (longreads.com)
63 points by kawera 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments



Caviar might be the most overrated food item (besides foie gras) that exists. It is enjoyable, but nowhere in proportion to the cost. It's a status symbol.

It's a damn shame we are pushing species into extinction for irrational reasons (overrated fish eggs, rhino horn ED "cures", etc)


Caviar is odd in that it should just be an additional way to use the fish that get caught. In the past people just thrown it away. Here in Sweden we use cod caviar for example as a common condiment for eggs and it is rather inexpensive.

The price of sturgeon caviar is just odd and seems to be mostly about the rarity. I have a hard time imagining the taste being that different from caviar of other similar type of fish. I have eaten roe from many different species and the primary distinction in taste seem to be linked to the oilyness of the fish.


Sorry, I disagree.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, and in the 80's black sturgeon caviar was readily available at reasonable prices.

It was and is DELICIOUS. We had no idea it was a status symbol, we just loved the shit out of it on bread with butter.


I like that this comment chain recapitulates the agents' underestimate of how much some people just want to eat caviar.


What GP mentions might really be just an echo of an even earlier times (60's, maybe 70's) when caviar was pretty much the cheapest thing to be served in booze bars (USSR didn't really care much about actually protecting the fish, or anything else) so lots of people developed taste for it.

When I was a kid it was stuff you'd mix into mashed potatoes to make them taste better, and it came in huge (a Kilo, I think) tins.

But outside of ex-USSR, I don't see why people would pay that much for it. Is it delicious? Yes. Is it that delicious? Not really, for money you can get more of something even tastier, I think.


When prepared correctly, foie gras is the single best-tasting food I've ever had.


I'm sorry I said that.. to each their own. Had no intention of making anyone feel bad about something they enjoy.


To me, as well, caviar tastes good but almost never worth the costs and certainly not worth pushing species into extinction for.

However, as far as most overrated and overpriced item the honor, in my book, goes to truffles. Which, for me, are not even enjoyable. But this is certainly just a personal preference.


The price and availability of truffles in the US may improve in the future as the result of "the great race to grow black truffles in Wine Country [where] Sonoma County has beaten out Napa Valley despite getting a later start"

"Ground-breaking truffle harvest portends something big in California" https://www.sfchronicle.com/wine/article/Ground-breaking-tru...


Truffles have really strong smell and taste. It is one of those things you either you love or hate. I personally love home made pasta with black truffle sauce.

It is expensive (~US$ 15 per person in truffles for a meal), but for me it's definitely worth every once in a while.

Sample recipe: http://www.travellingoven.com/2017/03/tagliatelle-pasta-with...


If we're talking about ridiculous overpriced foods I think saffron might beat out truffles for me. I've had it a couple times and i'm still not sure what it tastes like.


Same. It's not unacceptable to substitute it with a tiny bit of cumin to get the same color, since the taste of it is very subtle and easy to overpower. Even when you can taste it, it's not some miraculously incredible flavor or whatever, it just happens to compliment some other ingredients.

I grew some at home once just to see what the real stuff tastes like, and while the flowers were pretty, I'd never bother with it again.


You need to have it in a sufficient quantity (Grandma used to give 4-5 filaments in a warm glass of milk) and with very few other ingredients to know it's real taste and smell. Part me still wonders if I liked more it due to its rarity or the coziness of staying over at Grandma's...


Shark fin soup as well.


Fish roe is apparently an excellent source of phospholipids, so health-wise, it's probably pretty good. But krill oil is probably a cheaper source.


Phospholipids? Isn't every cell in every animal composed almost entirely of phospholipids? I think you mean omega 3 fatty acids. If that's the case, anchovies or salmon roe is probably a much more efficient source per dollar than caviar. You can even get higher purity algal sources (and can get different ratios of EPA and DHA than are present in natural sources).



Or flax, which is cheaper and has a longer shelf life.


foie gras? Huh. It is cheaper than aged rib eye by about half (at a local boutique grocer, aged ribeye is $30-50/lb and foie gras is about $16).

I'd finger filet mignon as an overrated showy food because it actually has very little flavor and it is bragged about among country-club suburban nitwits with their 3-series Beemers and "premium beige" mcmansions.


I don't particularly like caviar, but mentaiko (pollack roe, usually spiced up with chilli) is delicious on rice.


Its not overrated, it is just scarce.

Yes, it is a status symbol, solely because of its high price and because it is scarce.

These aren't controversial things, you already figured it out, but somehow have cognitive dissonance over this.


When I lived in Russia (2000s) it was quite abundant and seemed to be cheap, it was part of nearly every breakfast that I didn't prepare for myself whether or not there was anything luxurious about the situation.

The foie gras that GP mentioned, is inherently labor intensive to produce and not abundant anywhere.


Yes, and due to overfishing Russia banned it periodically in 2007 onwards.


It is scarce.

Because it is scarce, it is a status symbol.

Because it is a status symbol only because it is scarce, it is overrated.

Therefore it is overrated.


Something being overrated is subjective. It is another way to say "somebody else appreciate it much more than I do".

I admit that when the vast majority holds a common subjective opinion, for many intents and purposes it can be considered objective, but I'm not sure if it applies to caviar...


Actually I couldn't give two $#!T$ who sees me eating caviar, I pay the price for the pleasure of eating it when I can. It is not overrated just because you don't understand individual taste and/or are disappointed you can't afford it.


“I'll buy that the private sector can't solve the tragedy of commons, but if governments can't, we're all lost. The fact that the system we currently exist in uses fossil fuels doesn't equal the right of those who extract it to reap unlimited profit, or to pollute others' environment no matter how gradually or secretly.”

— you, six days ago


Caviar only become particularly scarce after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and an explosion in poaching drove sturgeon to extinction.

There was plenty of poaching during the communist times, but not enough to utterly destroy the country's fish stocks.


> Because it is a status symbol only because it is scarce, it is overrated.

Ah thats where we are going to disagree. That logic path isn't a leap I would make.

You are undervaluing the utility of scarcity.


And the utility of status symbols.

Now one can reasonably disagree over whether they should be useful. But the case that they actually are not useful is a difficult one.


Agreed, a single market participant can be constricting the supply intentionally or because they have a utility unknown/inaccessible to the rest of the market


ctrl+f "persian"

ctrl+f "iran"

...would seem the solution here would be to open up the caviar market with Iranian imports (caveat: I'm Persian), but the luxury goods sanctions snapped back courtesy of the current administration, so the monopoly is back with the Russians. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-05-08/what-s-ne...

Shrug.


I feel like there's some ridiculous pistachio laundering scheme because of the sanctions too.


> there's some ridiculous pistachio laundering scheme

Believe it or not, this is pushed by the same folks that own Fiji Water and Pom Wonderful.


> Entrepreneurs went looking for alternatives among Caspian sturgeon’s distant North American cousins: white sturgeon, the shovelnose sturgeon of the Mississippi River, the American paddlefish. It’s a mediocre substitute.

I like caviar... I have eaten quite a bit of caviar including Russian Sevruga and Beluga and I think actually prefer American Hackleback to all of them. The fact it is massively cheaper than Russian caviar is just an additional plus.


There is also Sturgeon farming in the Sacramento area[1]. NOt sure about the quality, but looks like a Belgian multinational is now the owner.

[1]http://www.sactownmag.com/December-January-2010/The-Incredib...


Aside from Persian Caviar, you could consider Chinese Caviar, one Chinese Caviar company, Kaluga Queen, already supplies 30% of the world, there are documentaries of them on Youtube. They supply 21 of the 26 3 star Michellin restaurants in Paris.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaluga_Queen


I've never understood the point of caviar (my ex loved it so I've eaten a lot over the decades). It always seemed like a classic Vleben/"famine cuisine turned posh", like lobster going from "inedible" to haut cuisine due to scarcity.

In fact this transition is right in the article: "...paddlefish caviar — a byproduct that for years local fishermen tossed back with fish guts — ..."


>like lobster going from "inedible" to haut cuisine due to scarcity.

Lobster didn't go from inedible to highly desirable because of scarcity. It's because we learned that when you kill the lobster and let it sit around for days it very quickly decomposes and releases ammonia, which tends to taste like cat piss. If you cook it immediately after killing it it actually tastes good.


> If you cook it immediately after killing it it actually tastes good.

I believe we actually cook it before killing it (boil alive).


Some people do, I believe generally the most acceptable (and humane) method is to spike the brain of the lobster before boiling it.


https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/vvq7k4/how-chefs-pre...

Frozen lobster is also not cooked. Sometimes it's death by freezing, if they're not killed another way first (for instance, frozen lobster tails are obviously killed before being cut). I'm quite certain boiling alive is one of the least common ways it's done, especially with the popularity of frozen lobster.


Depends on locality. I was a chef in the American Northeast and I worked with plenty of live lobsters, even at some mid-priced restaurants. I don't think people in Kansas have quite the same luxury, but I do remember seeing tanks when I lived out in the Midwest as well. Where I'm at though, there's plenty of live sea-food available for purchase through the year.


As a Midwesterner, I can verify that in the more populated areas it's possible to get them. Live lobsters are a bit on the expensive side, but not prohibitively so.


10 years or so ago, Walmarts in Kansas had live lobster tanks in the grocery area.


> I've never understood the point of caviar

What's the point of any luxury item? People enjoy it. If you don't, don't worry, you can probably find something else to enjoy instead.

> ...paddlefish caviar — a byproduct that for years local fishermen tossed back with fish guts

Lots of luxury items were once byproducts - it's not unusual and it doesn't diminish the enjoyment people get out of them now. Lobster (as you said), oysters, alcohol, are all examples.


I like tobiko. cheaper and still has that salty, fishy pop!


It's sad that these fish take 7+ years to mature and are harvested just for their eggs while their bodies are left to rot.


They are marvelous beasts. The bright side is that they are hard to catch outside of spawning grounds, and not commonly targeted by fishermen, not commonly caught accidentally, and not commonly eaten even if so.

The bad news is is that their chief competitor for food is Asian Carp. From my reading this is a much larger issue than Russian poachers.

(If you were wondering, I was looking into Asian carp snagging and got to reading up on Paddlefish since they inhabit the same waters near me)


> The state and federal government had spent millions of dollars to protect a fish stocking operation that costs Missouri $100,000 a year.

Seems like they could have just increased the cost of fishing licenses (or some similar fund-raiser) and increased the stocking effort.

Or heck, just farmed the caviar and sold it to aficionados …


They obviously did not do it just to save the cost of restocking a few paddlefish. As the article says repeatedly, they thought they were infiltrating an international mafia of endangered species poaching, money laundering, smuggling, international crime and transnational mafia likely with links to terrorism or intelligence agencies, which might be involved in anything from drugs to ivory smuggling.


Yeah and it turned out that they were delusional and people just wanted caviar to eat it

>Most of the men were buying female paddlefish, processing knockoff caviar and just … eating it. Illegal, yes. But the plot of a Russian mafia thriller? Hardly.

>If the government did not realize its miscalculation, at least some officers must have on March 13, 2013, at 7 a.m. Central time, when 125 state and federal agents descended on poachers across four time zones to make arrests.

>During an interrogation, one poacher was confused. The caviar was for his family to give guests when they came over.

>“Why would I want to sell it?” he asked.

>“To make money,” an agent suggested.

>“Heck, no!”

>Of the 112 defendants tagged with state or federal violations, investigators observed only Petr Babenko, the owner of a gourmet store in Vineland, New Jersey, intending to sell the stuff. He was prosecuted, convicted, and given probation. The government seized his Mercedes van.

>To Hitchings, it doesn’t matter. Other men were undoubtedly selling, he said


that's hindsight, though. enforcing the law is, i guess, rarely cost effective in the short run.


Looks like 'entrepreneur' is the term for 'opportunist' now.


None of these people self-described as entrepreneurs.




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