Saturday, October 4, 2014

To Eat Or Not Eat One Of Nature's Smartest Creatures

Why Not Eat Octopus?
Ben Lerner’s new novel, “10:04,” opens with a meditation on a decadent and expensive lunch in Chelsea, prominently featuring baby octopus. The narrator is supposed to be celebrating the six-figure sale of his book, but instead he focuses on the absurdity of the meal: “the impossibly tender things” had been “literally massaged to death.” He wonders about eating “an animal that decorates its lair, has been observed at complicated play.” Afterward, he and his agent walk out onto the High Line to watch the traffic on Tenth Avenue, and he experiences an empathic response to the once sentient octopuses now curdling within him:

I intuited an alien intelligence, felt subject to a succession of images, sensations, memories, and affects that did not, properly speaking, belong to me: the ability to perceive polarized light; a conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups; a terror localized in my extremities, bypassing the brain completely.

Octopus intelligence is well documented: they have been known to open jars, guard their unhatched eggs for months or even years, and demonstrate personalities. Most famously, they can blast a cloud of ink to throw off predators, but even more impressive is the masterfully complex camouflage employed by several members of Cephalopoda (a class that also includes squid and cuttlefish). Their curious behaviors are also culturally familiar. Ringo Starr traces the origins of his song “Octopus’s Garden” to an anecdote that a sea captain once told him in Sardinia, about the habit octopuses have of adorning their homes with rocks and detritus. During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, soccer fans across the world became enamored of Paul the Octopus (also known as Pulpo Paul), who correctly “predicted” the outcomes of all seven of Germany’s matches by choosing a box that, in addition to containing food, had the flag of the winning country on it. The chef José Andrés pledged to take octopus off his menus if Paul’s prediction about the semifinal between Spain and Germany came true. It did, and some Germans responded by calling for his arms. (Paul died that October, of apparently natural causes.)

4 Interesting Facts about Octopus
Pulpo Paul the Octopus (January 26th, 2008 – October 26, 2010) R.I.P.
Are Paul’s kind too smart to be eaten? The cephalopod—a spelling-bee favorite, from the Greek kephalē, for “head,” and pous or pod, for “foot,” by way of modern Latin—has been around for hundreds of millions of years. Evolutionarily speaking, it is far more distant from humans than the animals we tend to have moral quandaries about consuming. In characterizing the octopus, the CUNY biology professor Peter Godfrey-Smith has used language very similar to that of Lerner’s narrator: “It’s probably the closest we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien.” With their ovoid, head-like mantles, octopuses even look the part. They have relatively large brains, three hearts, and a decentralized nervous system that confers incredible motor dexterity—and they can squeeze through any opening larger than their beaks. They’ve been observed to “walk” on the ocean floor and even dry land. They have remained inscrutable in part by being notoriously difficult lab animals. There are stories of them unplugging drains, disconnecting wires, and resisting the maze challenge. They are known to possess around five hundred million neurons—which is not such an impressive number when compared with the eighty-six billion in the human brain, but is notable for the fact that more than half of them are located in the animal’s arms. I like to think of an octopus as a blobby, eight-fingered hand, but with a mind of its own and the uncanny ability to change color, size, shape, and texture. And then I’m suddenly not so keen on the idea of eating it.

Paul the Octopus's Memorial Statue
Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and early pioneer of virtual reality, long ago stopped eating cephalopods. In 2006, he wrote an impassioned tribute to the octopus’s morphing abilities for Discover, which later showed up in his 2010 manifesto, “You Are Not a Gadget.” After seeing video footage that his friend Roger Hanlon shot of an Octopus vulgaris practically disappearing into some algae, Lanier professed jealousy. He began to wonder what humans might be capable of if we were more like octopuses, and vice versa. “They can just at will project images on their bodies, and change their shape and turn into different things,” he fawns, calling this morphing “postsymbolic communication.” Cephalopods are on their own from the moment they’re born, he points out: with no concept of parenting, they pass on nothing to future generations. “If cephalopods had childhood,” he goes so far as to suggest, “surely they would be running the Earth.” (One of my colleagues points out that this seems an excellent reason to eat them.)

It takes a whole lot of work to make an octopus palatable, but humans around the globe, particularly in the Mediterranean and in East Asia, have been doing it for centuries. Most preparations involve tenderizing the meat—which is quite lean—through some combination of massage, blanching, braising, and blunt force. According to Harold McGee, salting is essential. The French chef Éric Ripert tenderized an octopus on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” by giving it a few good whacks on a cutting board, echoing the stereotypical Greek fisherman bashing it to death on the rocky shores of the Aegean. The perfectionistic sushi chef Jiro Ono requires that his octopus be massaged for forty to fifty minutes. These days, however, most octopus bought wholesale and served in restaurants comes frozen, and already tenderized, after being “tumbled” with sea salt and ice, its eight legs neatly tucked under it like the petals of a flower.

One way of bypassing the prep work, of course, is to eat the thing while it’s still alive. This is a practice with its own morally dubious thrill. (I have eaten live shrimp and ants, and I wonder if the frisson I felt wasn’t some kind of dormant predator instinct.) Mostly, though, it feels like a stunt. In Korea, the dish has a name—san nak ji—and in Flushing, Queens, there is a Korean restaurant that serves it, along with a potful of other live sea creatures, which are quickly simmered to their demise. Traditional san nak ji has the octopus cut into wriggling pieces. In a terrifying scene from the South Korean cult film “Old Boy,” however, it is served and eaten whole. Multiple live specimens were used in the filming of the scene, and the actor, Choi Min-sik, a Buddhist, said a prayer for each one. (The YouTube user who posted the clip writes, “I think I would try it but I dont think its kosher.” He’s right—lacking both fins and scales, it is not.)

Octopus w/ lemon and garlic
After all this research, I find myself suffering from what Michael Pollan, in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” calls “ethical heartburn.” Is an animal’s marked intelligence really reason enough not to eat it? Many arguments have been made against eating pigs on the same grounds. But, unlike domesticated animals, octopuses don’t have what Pollan calls a “bargain with humanity,” wherein they are dependent on us rearing them as either food or pets. (Though I do wonder what’s become of Tracy Morgan’s pet octopus.) Candace Croney, an associate professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, told Modern Farmer earlier this year, “If we’ve decided to eat pigs despite the fact that they are smart, should we not at least use the information that we have to make their lives as positive as possible up until the point when we decide, ‘Well now they’ve become food?’ ” Pollan similarly values a captive animal’s “opportunity to express its creaturely character.” An oft-cited aim of ethical consumption is to avoid interference with an animal’s habitat and its ability to reproduce. The more popular octopus becomes as an ingredient, the more likely it is to go the way of the European sea bass (on menus as branzino or loup de mer) and be commercially farmed.

According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, catches of O. vulgaris, the common octopus, are down about sixty per cent from their record high in the mid nineteen-seventies. But octopus, squid, and cuttlefish remain a delicacy of modern cuisine—think grilled-octopus salads and squid-ink pastas. I wondered whether word of cephalopod intelligence had reached the food world, so I asked a few chefs if they had any misgivings about serving the animals at their restaurants. For Ashleigh Parsons and Ari Taymor, of Alma, in Los Angeles, the question is not what we eat but where the food is coming from and how it is treated. “The only octopus Ari can get is frozen and shipped from Japan,” Parsons told me in an e-mail. For them, sustainability is paramount, and can trump the cachet of an ingredient.

Ignacio Mattos, the chef at Estela (and formerly at Isa, where he served a whole squid), said that he recently put cuttlefish on the menu, and recalled telling his staff about how smart the creatures are. “I remember seeing this Discovery Channel documentary about them and it really blew my mind,” he wrote to me. Mattos confessed that he loved their elegant texture and taste, but added, “I might in a way have started consciously avoiding using them somehow.” Dave Pasternack, chef and co-founder of the upscale midtown seafood restaurant Esca, spoke with me last week during dinner service from a wall-mounted phone right behind his station in the kitchen. As he called out orders for sole and scampi, he assured me that he had never heard tales of octopus intelligence. “The smarter they are, the more you’d want to eat them, right?” he suggested. (I’ve always been suspicious of people who eat brains.) He insisted that there was an art to cooking octopus correctly. His includes a Neapolitan trick: a wine cork in the cooking liquid. Éric Ripert and Harold McGee dismiss this step as mere legend—to which Pasternack gleefully responds, “Éric Ripert is full of shit!”

Raise your hand if you're smart...
Michael Psilakis, a successful Greek-American chef and restaurateur in New York (Kefi, Fishtag, MP Taverna), said that he’s been serving octopus for about twenty-five years but only noticed its increase in popularity over the past ten. “I remember first cooking octopus as a special, only on the weekends, and we’d do twenty orders the whole weekend. Now we do two hundred for a single shift,” he told me. He had heard about octopus intelligence many years before from a customer and Googled it. One of the first results he got was a list of the twenty-five smartest animals. “Pig was, like, number two, and sheep was on that list, too. That’s three animals specific to my cultural identity.… I sort of wondered, does that mean anything?” Psilakis said.

Like many animals, the octopus is occasionally cannibalistic—does that make it any more or less O.K. to eat? And if we could grow octopus meat in a lab, would it still be palatable? Last year, the Times Magazine ran a story about Dylan Mayer, a teen-ager who legally wrestled, caught, and ate a giant Pacific octopus off the coast of Seattle, causing an uproar. “Mayer’s real offense,” the piece concludes, “may have been forcing a community to realize that just because they’ve embraced local fare doesn’t mean they’re necessarily ready to see, in gory detail, it slaughtered or hunted or punched out and dragged from the bay.” In my opinion, Mayer is on solid footing—he swam for his dinner. It’s the rest of us, outsourcing death to the supply chain, who have something to think about. It is impossible for us to fully know the inner lives of octopuses, but the more we continue to study them and other forms of life, the closer we can come to a working definition of “intelligence.” The real quandary here is, when we find them, what if aliens turn out to be delicious? — Sylvia Killingsworth | The New Yorker

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