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Arkansas — A caviar state

I mentioned in an earlier Southern Fried post that I had done some writing for the July edition of Arkansas Life magazine. It’s the magazine’s annual food issue, and it’s filled with stories about (and great photos of) Arkansas food.

One of the things I most enjoy about writing is sharing with others stories about Arkansas that they might not otherwise know.

I bet that a majority of Arkansans don’t know that our state produces caviar — very good caviar, in fact.

So it was fun to be asked by the magazine’s editors to make the trip east to Marvell to interview 62-year-old Jessie George — his friends call him John — about the caviar he ships out from George’s Fish Market each winter and early spring.

“It’s comparable to the taste of Russian caviar,” he told me.

He gave me a container of his caviar to take home. I like anything salty, and this was something I found hard to stop eating.

Jessie George knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the rivers of the Arkansas Delta and the things those rivers produce. He grew up on a houseboat at St. Charles on the lower White River during the river-rat era when hundreds of Arkansans lived on houseboats on the lower Arkansas, Cache, St. Francis and White rivers.

These families scratched out a living catching fish, trapping for furs and gathering mussel shells for the button industry.

Jessie George has picked cotton, worked in grain elevators, fished commercially for catfish and buffalo and overcome alcoholism in his life.

One brother was killed in a boating accident while fishing on the White River at Indian Bay.

Another brother was killed when the truck he was driving, which was carrying 750 pounds of catfish, was hit by a train at Almyra.

“People were out there picking the fish up before they could even get his body removed from the vehicle,” George told me.

It hasn’t been an easy life.

Back in the day when Arkansas restaurants primarily sold river-caught catfish rather than farm-raised catfish, the George brothers supplied the owners of the best-known catfish restaurants in the state — men such as Virgil Young of North Little Rock and Olden Murry of DeValls Bluff.

George said he has thrown “tons” of paddlefish back in the river, never realizing there might be a demand for their eggs. Paddlefish can reach more than five feet in length and weigh more than 60 pounds.

George began moving slowly into the caviar business in 1998. At one point, he drove from east Arkansas to Portland, Maine, just so a wholesaler could sample his product.

“I’d send samples to famous companies such as Petrossian and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar,” he said. “In all these years, I’ve never had a pound of eggs returned.”

Within a few years, George was no longer selling buffalo or catfish. He explained it this way: “I would be selling someone $4 worth of buffalo and let $100 worth of caviar get spoiled in the process.”

About 15 commercial fishermen supply George from late November until early April with eggs from paddlefish (often known in the Delta as spoonbill catfish), shovelnose sturgeon and bowfin.

There was a time when George shipped almost 10,000 pounds of eggs a year out of Marvell. He said it’s now too hard for him to find seasonal labor — people willing to work long hours in short stretches — in that part of the Delta. He also has a bad back.

“If you meet a commercial fisherman who is as old as I am, you’ll meet someone with a bad back,” he said.

Pulling in those nets day after day can take its toll.

The output at the Marvell facility is now in the range of 5,000 pounds a season. That’s still a lot of caviar.

George’s biggest buyer is the Great Atlantic Trading Co. of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., which describes paddlefish roe on its website as ranging from “light to dark steel gray, and comparable in taste to Caspian Sea Sevruga.”

The eggs from shovelnose sturgeon, which are known in the business as hackleback caviar (the term “shovelnose” apparently turns some consumers off), are described by Great Atlantic as “dark, firm with a very mild, subtle flavor.”

George also supplies Great Atlantic with bowfin eggs that are marketed by the company as “black caviar roe with an earthy and distinctive flavor that makes a good, less expensive substitute for sturgeon caviar. Unlike sturgeon, bowfin black caviar roe will turn red if heated.”

George supplied me with the finest of his three types of freshwater caviar, the hackleback.

Caviar has quite a history.

Armenian brothers Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, who were born on the Iranian side of the Caspian Sea and raised on the Russian side, are credited with popularizing caviar in Paris during the 1920s and spurring a worldwide interest in the product.

The brothers went to France to continue their studies of medicine and law, which had been interrupted in Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Petrossian website tells the story this way: “Paris welcomed exiled Russian princes, intellectuals and aristocrats with open arms, and Parisians embraced all things Russian, especially the arts, ballet, the choreography of Diaghilev and the music of Igor Stravinsky. Nonetheless, there was one thing missing from the Russian expatriates’ lives: caviar. The French had yet to be introduced to this rare delicacy, a situation that the Petrossian brothers immediately set out to remedy.

“Their first attempts to create an awareness of caviar in Paris were assisted by Cesar Ritz, the great impresario of the European hotel trade. His initial reluctance to offer caviar in his prestigious establishment at the Place Vendome was quickly overcome as caviar caught on and assumed its own very special niche in the world of gastronomy.”

Marvell and Jessie George don’t seem to fit alongside Paris and Cesar Ritz.

But there’s no doubt that Arkansas has found its own niche in the world caviar trade.

Pick up the latest issue of Arkansas Life to read more about it.

And know that for a recent Friday night meal, my family started with caviar, followed by fried crappie for the main course.

That might seem upscale-downscale to some, but I considered it a meal featuring the best of what comes out of Arkansas’ lakes, rivers and streams.

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