'Tis the season to be jolly -- or at least self-indulgent. Festive foods that rarely grace our tables at other times of the year make their appearance during the holidays as if, this year especially, to reward us for enduring harder-than-usual hardships, both financial and frightful.
So bring on the caviar, and let's celebrate our continuing ability to celebrate.
In a catalogue I saw various kinds of caviar spoons ranging from $12 to $50. Why does caviar have to be served with an expensive, special spoon?
One can imagine several reasons. (1) Chopsticks don't work very well. (2) Merchants assume that anyone who eats caviar regularly is an easy sell. (3) Caviar deserves it. (4, 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. 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, which range 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 it may contain anywhere from 10 to 27 percent fat by weight (and lots of cholesterol, if you want to know), caviar is very perishable and must be preserved with salt. While some are 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. As every winter driver knows, salt is corrosive. Sodium chloride can react with metals such as iron, steel and silver to produce traces of soluble metal chlorides. Thus, when salted caviar comes in contact with a utensil made of these metals, it can acquire an unwelcome metallic taste. Spoons and dishes made of inert materials have therefore always been used for caviar. Porcelain or glass dishes are customary, while the time-honored material for spoons is mother-of-pearl, the hard, white, lustrous substance (called nacre) that pearls and the inner surfaces of mollusk shells are made of. Caviar spoons carved from animal horn are also traditional, as are olive-wood spoons in France.
But must we hew to outmoded tradition by paying up to $50 for laboriously carved seashell, animal horn and wooden utensils with which to serve our caviar? How primitive! This is the 21st century, is it not? We now happen to have an extremely inexpensive material that is every bit as inert, nonreactive, noncorroding and flavorless as mother-of-pearl, and even more so than wood. We call it plastic.
The small plastic spoons furnished by certain fast food chains can work beautifully, inasmuch as they are highly resistant to corrosion, even from coffee. They are available simply for the asking, although it is only courteous to order something during your visit.
As a public service, I have compared the effectiveness of the unintentional caviar spoons available at Wendy's, McDonald's, KFC, Dairy Queen and Baskin-Robbins. (Taco Bell doesn't provide spoons; they provide sporks: utensils shaped like a spoon with tines at the end. Remember the Owl and the Pussycat's runcible spoon? It was a kind of spork.)
The results of my research are as follows: The caviar spoons at Wendy's, McDonald's, KFC and Dairy Queen are all too big, although Dairy Queen's is smallest and is an attractive red color. Best of all was the small tasting spoon they give you to try an ice cream flavor at Baskin-Robbins. It's not only the perfect size, but a pretty pink color.
Regarding metals: Stores and catalogues that sell mother-of-pearl or horn caviar spoons (often with fancy sterling-silver handles) warn that caviar should never come in contact with metal. But there is metal and there is metal. One metal that is completely impervious to corrosion by salt and as a consequence will not contribute a metallic flavor is gold. If you wish, therefore, you can find any number of caviar spoons with gold-plated bowls. On the Internet I found a set of 6 caviar spoons with gold-plated bowls and Faberge handles for $600. No need even to drive your Bentley to Baskin-Robbins.
How does one use a caviar spoon? No, one doesn't eat caviar by the spoonful like soup, except as I have been known to do in the privacy of my own home, not when a guest in someone else's.
When caviar is used to garnish canapes in quantities so stingy that one can actually count the eggs, it is in my opinion wasted. It may add flavor, but its sensuous mouth-feel is smothered by all the other ingredients. One of the best ways to enjoy caviar is by the so-called body shot. Make a fist of one hand, with thumb pointing downward, and spoon 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. But make sure to follow each shot with an ample snack.
Na zdorovye! Here's to your health!
Labelingo: This one isn't food related, but I couldn't resist it. Perspicacious reader Paul Schurick of Crownsville, Md., found the following on the label of a rug he purchased at Sam's Club: "Made of 100% Miscellaneous Fibers." Always nice to know.
(Have you noticed any silly things on food labels? Send your Labelingo contributions, along with your name and town, to Food 101, Food Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or to the e-mail address below.)
Robert L. Wolke (www.professorscience.com) is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and author, most recently, of "What Einstein Told His Barber: More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions" (Dell, $12.95). His next book, "What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained" will be published by W.W. Norton in May. Send your kitchen questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.