“As a tourist in Charleston, don’t be so gauche as to ask where the souvenir stands are,” The Evening Post in 1980 advised visitors who might be tempted to purchase a T-shirt or sack of seashells before heading home. Instead, the writer suggested, invest in a rice spoon, sweetgrass basket, Charleston bonnet or an edible memento such as “Harris she-crab soup, Mrs. Sassard’s artichoke relish (or) Georgetown caviar.”
While the first two items are still found on Lowcountry shelves, the region’s caviar industry was wiped out in 1986 by the closure of the state’s commercial Atlantic sturgeon fishery. The shortnose sturgeon, also previously abundant off the South Carolina coast, had been declared endangered and off-limits in 1967.
“Thanks to men’s carelessness and indifference, sturgeon have now all but disappeared from the Atlantic coast,” Pete Laurie of the S.C. Wildlife and Marine Resources Department lamented in a 1972 Evening Post column.
Laurie blamed overfishing, dams, pollution, dwindling alligator populations and shad fishermen who didn’t mind their nets for the worrisome sturgeon situation.
In 1880, South Carolina fishermen harvested 250,000 pounds of sturgeon. By 1940, the annual figure had dropped to 3,400 pounds. The average size of a captured sturgeon declined over the same period from 300 pounds to 75 pounds.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an Atlantic sturgeon allowed to fully mature can grow to 800 pounds.
The fearsome dimensions of the primitive bony fish may have deterred some 19th-century eaters, University of South Carolina professor David Shields speculates. “As with other oily fish, the flavor inspired a difference of opinion, some being avid devotees, others indifferent,” he wrote in a paper nominating the Atlantic sturgeon to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a collection of flavors facing extinction. “The distaste may have derived, however, from trepidation at the rather monstrous size and appearance of the fish.”
Not everyone was scared off by the sturgeon’s looks. Smoked sturgeon, promoted as a cheap alternative to smoked salmon, became popular in New York in the 1880s, particularly with German-born customers. It was initially marketed as “Albany beef,” because of strong anti-sturgeon sentiment, but was reunited with its real name by 1890, when a fish dealer briefed a News and Courier reporter on the sturgeon trade.
“The most valuable part of the fish is its roe, which is taken out and salted, and sold as Russian caviar,” the man, identified only as Mr. Sack, said. “After being salted, they are packed in kegs, which hold about 100 pounds each, and are shipped to Northern markets, where they find ready sale.”
By the 1930s, the practice of smoking sturgeon had waned (although it still surfaces on special occasions, such as Slow Food’s recent Ark of Taste dinner at The Grocery, at which chef Kevin Johnson smoked farmed sturgeon meat for fish balls.) According to Shields, “the three most common Southern treatments of the meat of the fish were to bake it, boil it or roast its steaks.”
But regional interest in roe was unflagging. In 1978, The Evening Post sent a reporter to Pawleys Island to visit with harvester Mackie Altman, who got into the sturgeon business after leaving the Navy in 1951. Altman attributed his success to his preserving techniques.
“There isn’t a big market for caviar,” he told the paper, estimating he could extract 6 pounds of eggs from a 400-pound fish. “Not even 10 percent of all the people in the world know what caviar is, let alone buy it, so it has to keep until someone wants it.”
Altman’s sturgeon caviar was a weekly special at two Atlanta salad bars. He preferred it blended with cream cheese, mayonnaise and horseradish “to tone down the strong, salty sardine taste of the roe,” a photo caption explained.
For Altman, sturgeon meant a little extra money to supplement his shrimping income. But in the early 1980s, a few Lowcountry entrepreneurs tried to further capitalize on the Iranian caviar embargo.
“Chef Frank Lee was cooking for Jose DeAnacleto at Restaurant Million, which would eventually become McCrady’s,” Old Village Post House chef Forrest Parker recently recalled on his blog. “He has shared with me a story of how fishermen used to try to sell him mason jars of Winyah Bay caviar.”
Marketer Harry Dunnagan and fisherman Eugene Platt in 1979 teamed up to form Atlantis Caviar, headquartered in North Myrtle Beach. Platt was a protege of Georgetown’s Rene Cathou, the region’s first major caviar processor.
“He learned about it from his daddy,” Platt was quoted as saying. “He and a few others been shippin’ caviar to New York for years. I’ve been messin’ with caviar for a long time.”
Despite the ban on sturgeon fishing, it’s still possible to sample Atlantic sturgeon caviar: In 2012, Atlantic Caviar & Sturgeon, an aquaculture operation near Lenoir, N.C., started selling its product for a few dollars a gram.