Monday, May 29, 2017

The Finicky Foodie: On the Octopus Trend


Octopus is being served in all the trendiest restaurants. In fact, some of my favorite eateries feature octopus. But I, as a finicky foodie, am having trouble jumping on the pulpo bandwagon. My background in eating octopus as food goes way back to the time that octopus was served as little rings, often dredged in flour and fried. At times these rings were chewy, but I was OK with them. They didn't look like octopus.

Growing Up with Octopus
I grew up in San Francisco and loved seafood. We went to Fisherman's Wharf to pick up fresh crab. We dined on swordfish steaks with plenty of tartar sauce. And we savored prawns served cold with home made tangy red sauce.

Octopuses were in my life, but not on my table. I was interested in marine biology and spent plenty of time at Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park. I marveled at the tank with the huge-headed octopus, watched him breathe and squeeze into the tiniest places. Those suction cups were most often seen on the sides of the tank so we could see them close up. And, one time I saw an octopus that worked its way into a small glass jar, tentacles and all. I was fascinated. 

California Academy of Sciences
I really wasn't aware at that stage of life that people ate octopus. Shrimp, yes. Abalone, yes. But octopus? An octopus, to me, was a fascinating, undulating being moving on all 8 legs across the ocean floor and, when in a hurry, making itself streamlined... head first, with a whoosh of water to propel it away from danger. 

I not only visited the aquarium and went tide-pooling along the ocean, I read about sea life, sailing and nautical adventures. Some of what I read involved Cephalopods.  There was the giant squid in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. "The creature rises up in front of the boats—it’s a 'vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color', and it has a bunch of strange undulating tentacles. Then it submerges itself again." Nothing there to appeal to a foodie.

And then there was the giant octopus in Jules Vernes' 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. During the voyages of the submarine, Nautilus, they encountered several giant octopuses that attack the boat and have to be fought by the crew. Jules Verne not only tells of how the crew manages in desperate battles to defend the boat against the monsters, but in the preface to the battle several crew members talk about the legend of the giant octopus. Not the stuff foodie legends are made of!

Octopuses are Interesting and Smart
So I grew up intrigued by octopus and scared of them. What might happen if those suction cups attached themselves to me! Yikes!

I’ve recently found out that octopuses are pretty smart and creative. Last year The Washington Post reported a story in which “Inky the Octopus slipped through a gap left by maintenance workers at the top of his enclosure and, as evidenced by the tracks, made his way across the floor to a six-inch-wide drain. He squeezed his football-sized body in and made a break for the Pacific.” Inky became quite the celebrity and was cheered on for having broken out of the aquarium. 

No Octopus on my Plate Please
I mentioned that when I was served octopus in the past, it was disguised. But now, chefs make a point of ensuring that diners see the tentacles on their plate. It’s part of the art of edibles nowadays.

But I just can’t order any dishes with visible tentacles in them. It won’t work for me. My foodie friends urge me on telling me how delicious octopus is but I have just said no to octopus and pulpo on my plate.
As much as I admire my favorite Portland chefs and love what they create, I will remain finicky. I'll pick and choose from the offerings and let the octopus remain that curious creature in the ocean with the suction cups... a bit endearing and a bit scary.

I was drawn to this stuffed octopus in the gift shop
at Sea Lion Caves on the Oregon Coast.
I know I must not be the only one who draws the line at eating octopus. For now...

I remain,
The Finicky Foodie

Note: Food photos from Instagram shares.