What would you say if someone told you that at one point in not-too-recent history, New Jersey was once the world’s largest exporter of gourmet caviar? Hear us out. Not only is it true, but especially as New Year’s Eve arrives and everyone starts toasting “Roaring 2020” with coupes of Champagne, you’ll have a juicy (salty?) tidbit to share about the caviar that goes with it.
Caviar refers to the salt-cured eggs, or roe, of any variety of sturgeon, a big fish—they can grow anywhere from 10 to 20 feet—found in cold waters all over the world. Beluga, osetra, and sevruga are all kinds of sturgeon. While today, we tend to think of caviar as an exclusively Russian product, sturgeon were at one point extremely plentiful in the waters of the Delaware River, which travels along southwestern New Jersey before meeting up with Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Those sturgeon might have continued swimming the Delaware if it weren’t for the ingenuity of a German immigrant named Henry Schacht. In the late 19th entury, Schacht realized that the Delaware’s abundance of sturgeon might yield up treasure troves of a product relatively unknown to Americans but still prized by Europeans—caviar. In 1873, he essentially founded the East Coast caviar industry, with hundreds of fishermen catching sturgeon up and down the Delaware River, harvesting the roe, curing it in German salt and packing it up for a profit. The hub of the activity was a small town in Cumberland County that came to be known as Caviar Point, or Caviar.
Schacht and Co. began caviar production farther north, in Penns Grove (Salem County), but the little town of Caviar emerged as the crossway where sturgeon roe would be collected and readied for transportation up north, to New York City or Philadelphia, at the rate of 12–15 train cars’ worth per day. At its height, there were close to two dozen caviar wholesalers operating out of Caviar. And here’s a good tidbit to remember for any slightly tipsy NYE bragging: by the end of the 19th century, America was producing more caviar than anywhere else in the world, about 90 percent of it, in fact, with Caviar, New Jersey, leading the pack.
While Schacht was wisely shipping caviar off to Europe for a dollar a pound, there was still plenty left over for Americans to consume—except we didn’t know what to do with it. Europe had been worshiping the tiny salty fish eggs for centuries, but for Americans in the late 19th century, caviar was a novelty, maybe, a very salty novelty that sold cheap. So cheap, in fact, you could actually find caviar in local saloons, with bartenders using caviar the way they use peanuts or pretzels today—as a salty snack meant to keep guests thirsty and more or less upright.
Soon after, early-stage industrial pollution coupled with rampant overfishing all but destroyed sturgeon populations. The town of Caviar never really recovered; the several hundred sturgeon fishermen who’d once filled the town from May to June had no reason to return, and infrastructure—rail stops and even a small Post Office—quickly shuttered. The town of Caviar dried up, eventually returning to the far less luxurious-sounding name of Bayside, and New Jersey’s role in the history of caviar consumption all but disappeared.
As food pride continues to build in the state, and producers continue to seek out resources native to our turf (and surf), memories of even long-lost native New Jersey resources are important to hold on to. Who knows—memories of what we lost (caviar!) might make us act more carefully with the resources we have now.Click here to leave a comment