Caspian Childhood: How I Came to Eat Caviar like Cereal

“Ewwwww! Ew, Ew, Ew!” she gagged, wrinkling her nose and furiously shaking her head. She stuck out her tongue and spit.

Out came pearls that pop softly in your mouth: caviar.

Yes, caviar.

No, we were not at some ritzy affair that serves sparkling wine, lobster and escargot. In fact, we were in second grade. Tiffany and I were seven. She had accepted my invitation to a playdate at my Long Island abode. We had made way towards the kitchen with our roaring bellies.

There stood my mother, always happy to fulfill a snack craving. She implored us to sit down while she laid out large pieces of white bread with thickly-spread butter on the table and poured some sweet tea. Before Tiffany could grab a slice, my mother told her to wait a moment. She placed gobs of juicy caviar on the table and handed us two spoons.

My mother fled Azerbaijan from rife anti-Semitism and oppression in the late seventies at eleven years old. Azerbaijan is situated right on the Caspian sea, full of glistening beluga, sevruga, and osetra sturgeons. If you were to visit this magical place, you would find large freshwater fish with sloping snouts and fleshy lips. The caviar that my mother grew up with became a fixture of my childhood.

Tiffany scanned the contents of this mysterious bowl. “It’s good for you,” my mom assured her, smiling wide. “If you don’t have some, you won’t grow.” She was not wrong — caviar is rich in selenium and vitamin B12.

Unlike Tiffany, I dived right in and scarfed some down in a second. Seeing me do this without reservation, Tiffany immediately plopped a spoonful in her mouth like they were pop-rocks. Realizing that she didn’t like the fishy taste, her enthusiasm immediately turned to disgust. My mother and I exchanged looks, noticing the chewed up bits stuck in the crinkled napkin that Tiffany had spit out.

This had been the first time I encountered someone disliking caviar. I grew up indulging in it for breakfast in the morning the same way that one would nosh cereal out of a bowl with a spoon. When I was not eating caviar straight with a spoon or with toast, I would eat them rolled up in crepes, a dish called blini. I had never recognized until then that the taste of the sea — briny, rich, and buttery  — is an acquired taste. These jewel-shaped bits of savory nuttiness were not the American peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches that parents would pack for their kids for lunch.

I would soon find out that no matter how I ate caviar,  I would be met with blank stares of confusion and raised brows of disbelief when people would ask what I had eaten for breakfast. Tired of explaining what I was eating, I would nibble self-consciously under the table at school,  but my classmates would still call me “Caviar girl.”

My dual identity originates from living between the two worlds of the Russian and American life. I am a first generation child of two immigrants from the Soviet Union. “We thought America was happiness — jeans, Marlboro, and Coca Cola,” my mother would muse. For my mother, caviar was not a luxury food, but a standard. Those blue-stacked, neatly-dressed tins sitting in abundance were universally adored in her time of strife. “Caviar was not a delicacy but a way of life in Azerbaijan,” my mother would explain. “I remember being young and having a guy who bring a huge bucket and scream on the top of his lungs that he had fresh caviar. People would come out to the court-yard and buy heaps of it.”

In  high school, I would go with her to Brighton Beach to pick up caviar from the grocery store. Brighton Beach is heavily populated with Russians, along with their herrings under fur coats, beets, meat jello, vareneky dumplings, and stewed kompote (a stewed fruit punch). Caviar would begin getting more expensive over the years, so my grandparents would travel and bring back cans from Azerbaijan. We would pair it with vodka, clinking glasses at birthdays and holidays.

Looking back now, I know that eating caviar is nothing to feel self-conscious about. I am proud of my roots. In fact, I feel lucky. This luxurious food that I was able to have in my childhood was passed down from one generation to the next so that the cultural traditions of my Russian heritage could be preserved. So, I plan to continue doing just that.