Would You Like Fries or Caviar With That?

An excerpt from What Einstein Told His Cook

In a catalog I saw various kinds of caviar spoons ranging from $12 to $50. Why does caviar have to be served with a special, fancy spoon?

One can imagine several reasons. (1) Merchants assume that anyone who eats caviar that regularly is an easy sell. (2) Caviar deserves it. (3, and least romantically) There is a chemical reason for it.

Caviar is the roe of the sturgeon, a huge dinosaur-era fish with armored plates instead of scales that lives primarily in the Caspian and Black Seas, although there is a growing supply of good American caviars from farm-raised sturgeon and other fish. The Caspian coastline used to be monopolized by Iran and the Soviet Union but now is shared by Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and a smidgen of Azerbaijan.

Of the three main species of Caspian sturgeon, the beluga is largest (up to 1,700 pounds) and has the largest eggs, ranging in color from light to dark gray to black. Next largest is osetra, which can grow to 500 pounds and has grayish, gray-green or brown eggs. The smallest is sevruga (up to 250 pounds), with small, greenish black eggs.

Because caviar may contain anywhere from 8 to 25 percent fat (and lots of cholesterol, if you want to know), it is very perishable and must be preserved with salt. While some products can be quite salty, the highest quality caviars contain no more than 5 percent by weight of added salt. They are called malassol, which is Russian for lightly salted. And therein lies the problem. Salt is corrosive. It can react with silver and steel spoons to produce traces of compounds that reputedly impart a metallic taste to the caviar. Spoons made of inert materials have therefore always been used for caviar. Except for gold, which is impervious to corrosion by salt, the time-honored material has been mother-of-pearl, the hard white, lustrous substance called nacre that pearls and the inner surfaces of mollusk shells are made of.

But this is the twenty-first century. We now have an extremely inexpensive material that is every bit as non-reactive, non-corroding and flavorless as mother-of-pearl. We call it plastic. And luckily, a variety of plastic spoons are available just for the asking at fast-food restaurants, although I need not point out that they were not intended for caviar.

As a public service, I have researched the caviar suitability of spoons from Wendy’s, McDonald’s, KFC and Dairy Queen. (Taco Bell doesn’t provide spoons; they provide sporks: utensils shaped like spoons with tines at the ends. Remember the Owl and the Pussycat’s runcible spoon? It was a kind of spork.) Alas, all of these spoons were too big. But eventually I found the tasting spoons at Baskin Robbins to be the ideal size and a pretty pink color to boot. (It’s only polite to order some ice cream when you go to acquire your free spoon.)

Do you think it sacrilegious to serve caviar from plastic, yet you don’t want to spend $600 for a gold-plated FabergĂ© caviar spoon? Then try the so-called body shot. Make a fist of one hand, with thumb pointing downward, and place a dollop of caviar onto the web of skin between the thumb and forefinger. Then eat it off your hand and wash it down with a shot of ice-cold Russian or Polish vodka from a narrow tequila glass.

Na zdorovye! Here’s to your health!

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