Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 47

November 21-27, 2002

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Squid Aversion

The thinking man’s response when suggested he dine upon squid.

Say what you want about squid or, if you prefer, calamari. But I prefer to paraphrase the late Gertrude Stein, who in Sacred Emily, published in 1913, wrote:

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

I say a squid is a squid is a squid. I say it emphatically. Give the squid a high-faluting gourmet-sounding moniker like the Italian calamari, and I say it’s still a squid — and a squid is a squid is a squid.

To be more miserly with words: Yuk.

We’re told that everything on this earth of ours was put here for a purpose. The only redeeming reason for the squid to warrant passage on Noah’s Ark (well, maybe marine life didn’t go aboard that Biblical boat of yore) was that it could someday be used for fishing bait — or perhaps its calling as a staple in the diet of sperm whales of the deep.

Not on My Plate
I stopped eating in Portuguese restaurants back in the late ’40s when I discovered that in some of the waterfront kitchens in Fall River and New Bedford (Massachusetts), squid was sneaked into stews, soups and other dishes. No one that I know of used the word calamari back then.

The chefs were slick. They just did not mention that pieces of squid were included in their hearty, belly-warming dishes. Okay, their regular Portuguese clientele knew it. But why did they have to tell me when I went ashore after trips to Georges Banks aboard draggers for cod during a three-month college work period.

To this day, I decline a pot of bouillabaisse, which I love dearly, until I go through it with the proverbial fine tooth comb and have a signed affidavit from the guy in the galley with the tall white hat that it’s absolutely squid free.

By now, you should have at least the vague notion that creepy, crawly squid is not among my favorite dishes. It scores in the tripe, blood sausage and eel category on my short list of yuks.

Bake it, stew it, broil it, deep fry it, put in all the seasonings you can think of, and I’d still rather starve than eat even one of those tiny, rubbery rings. And to think there are some who eat it raw. Yuk.

Carlos Bentos, formerly of Annapolis and now of Ocean City, is among the best billfish chasers of the world (and wrote one of the best fishing books ever on his chase for white marlin). He also tried to sneak some squid into my innards.

I was interviewing him in one of his Washington restaurants in the mid ’90s after he single-handedly won the Ocean City White Marlin Open. He invited wife Lois and me to dine with him while we chatted. And he chose the menu.

Lois graciously accepted a sample of an appetizer under a foreign name. I wasn’t so gullible. I asked what it really was, and when told it was some kind of freshly pickled raw squid, I headed for the men’s room. And I didn’t kiss Lois for a week.

I’d rather eat chocolate-covered ants or roasted grasshoppers — both of which I did, and ever so sparingly — when interviewing a so-called gourmet chef for a column I was researching as editor of the Plattsmouth Journal in Nebraska, where some dizzy politician was encouraging kitchen testing uses for the surplus of grasshoppers that plagued the countryside.

It was enough to turn my stomach to recently read in this publication’s Dock of the Bay column a short piece on squid that told of some marine researchers’ wishes to get closer look-sees at giant squid. If they were fishermen in need of bait, that brief note could have been palatable. But just to get a close-up look, no way. Yuk.

Leave It for the Fish
I can barely appreciate a fish, in a pinch, munching on a piece or a whole squid, seeing that the alternatives might include eels, bloodworms or chopped-up smelly menhaden. If I were that fish, I’d opt to spit out the bait and eat the hook.

But, because many fish are willing to gobble up a piece of squid, I’ve spent much time over the years slicing it into thin V-shaped strips ready for the hook. Did you ever smell raw frozen squid thawed by a steaming sun?

Hardheads of Chesapeake Bay Country adore squid. Norfolk spot, sea trout, flounder, white perch, catfish, yellow perch, even rockfish eat pieces of squid. Rigged whole and skipped life-like from the stern of an ocean-going fishing boat, squid is probably the best bait going for white marlin. They gotta be awfully hungry — or have the taste buds of a scavenging toadfish.

Out in the ocean, live giant squid comprise a big niche in the diet of sperm whales. Not infrequently, the whales are wounded, their bodies marred, perhaps even killed, as the up to 50-ton Moby Dicks fight to devour a ceogalopod a mile or more below the surface.

No one has filmed any kind of a squid fighting off a whale, but they know it happens by the tentacle scars on some whales. They also know that in some studies, every sperm whale examined had at least one giant squid in its belly. Students of sperm whales estimate that an adult can consume three giant squid a day. If only half of them did this, the annual consumption of giant squid by sperm whales alone would be 547,500. Yuk.

Worse, They Come in Giant Size
How big is a giant squid? The body alone has been described as big or bigger than a flour barrel, with a bunch of tentacles, each measuring 25 feet or more (one description has it 55 feet from tail tip to tentacle tip), and with eyes that are six inches across, the largest in the animal kingdom. The giant squid is the largest of all invertebrates, and it has been strongly suggested that it could be the most populous non-insect creature on earth.

It travels by jet propulsion.

Smaller squids also make up a good part of its diet. Back during World War II, two men in a boat off Newfoundland almost made up part of the diet of a particular squid who worked a tentacle into their large dory. They cut it off with an axe — and that’s about the closest any human has been to a live supersquid.

For centuries, sailors and whalers talked of giant squid, but no one really believed them. Some still don’t, but not too long ago a Japanese fishing boat trawled in most of what was left of one — enough to satisfy many skeptics. Knowing they’re around has prompted new efforts with underwater cameras to capture one in its natural habitat. There are even hopes of eventually catching on film or tape one doing battle with a whale.

Tune into that epic fight on the National Geographic channel, and let’s see how much of the deep-fried calamari snacks lay untouched in the bowl. Incidentally, if for some curious reason, you’re interested in these dreadful and elusive creatures, Richard Ellis has written The Search for the Giant Squid, published by The Lyons Press.

Gruesome excerpts should be printed on the menus of eateries that serve calamari. Enough said …

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly