Written by David Shields
Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009
Once Atlantic sturgeon dominated the coastal rives of the south, the largest fish in the food chain. Long-lived and slow-moving, they grew to enormous size, up to fourteen feet in length, cruising in the depths of the main stem rivers in South Carolina. Both meat and roe found ready buyers in the urban markets, so commercial fisherman began the systematic harvest of sturgeon early in the 19th century. Their improvidence caused a drastic reduction of the population in American waters over the course of the 19th centuries and early 20th century.
The collapse of the sturgeon population took place in northern rivers by the mid-20th century. South Carolina in the 1960s and 70s landed half of the nation’s total catch, but this intensive fishing replicated the problems in the north. By the early 1980s the fishery was in dire straits. South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources prohibited sturgeon fishing in 1985 in a bid to rebuild the species. Unfortunately the damming of several of the sturgeon’s breeding rivers has thwarted its restoration. Only in undammed estuaries, such as the Edisto, has an increase in spawn been detected.
The riverine short-nosed sturgeon, which has never been pursued by commercial or recreational fisherman to any extent, is also an endangered species, primarily because of habitat degradation.
Farm raised sturgeon is available in certain parts of the United States, and the University of Georgia produces excellent caviar from farmed White Sturgeon. Most early southern cookbooks included recipes for sturgeon steaks, cutlets, baked and pickled sturgeon. This classic version, drawn from Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife, was prepared in a Dutch Oven.
Get a piece of sturgeon with the skin on, the piece next to the tail, scrape it well, cut out the gristle, and boil it about twenty minutes to take out the oil take it up, pull off the large scales, and when cold, stuff it with forcemeat, made of bread crumbs, butter, chopped parsley, pepper and salt, put it in a Dutch oven just large enough to hold it, with a pint and half of water, a gill of red wine; one of mushroom catsup, some salt and pepper, stew it gently till the gravy is reduced to the quantity necessary to pour over it; take up your sturgeon carefully, thicken the gravy with a spoonful of butter rubbed into a large one of brown flour; — see that it is perfectly smooth when you put it in the dish. p. 57.