December 25, 2013
No, not salmon, that eminently respectable candidate for a fishetarian dinner. Octopus instead, still exotic and dubious-looking in this part of the world, but a common food staple in Japan and throughout the Mediterranean: in Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Morocco. Tunisia has restaurants specializing in this, the equivalent of pizzerias, called pulperias.
According to Wikipedia, the octopus is the most intelligent among invertebrates, with a problem-solving neural apparatus, able to squeeze into tight spots and to escape even from apparently secure fish tanks. Its gift for camouflage and mimicry, not to mention its ability to eject ink, suggests some kinship with writers.
Victor Hugo has a lot to say about the octopus in Les travailleurs de la mer, and Marianne Moore has a scary poem about “An Octopus/ of ice,” but theirs is an unnecessarily select company. Melville was apparently thinking of the giant octopus when he wrote to Hawthorne: “The Leviathan isn’t the biggest fish; I have heard of Krakens,” but he didn’t use the actual word. Frank Norris wrote a whole novel called The Octopus — first installment in his Epic of the Wheat — but it’s about the struggle of wheat farmers against the Southern Pacific Railroad (depicted in G. Frederick Keller’s 1882 cartoon as a giant mollusc).
So, my proposal for a new aquatic humanities: as a counterpoint to deep water oil drilling, how about some attention to ocean animals: endangered species like the bluefin tuna, and sustainable ones like tilapia, mussels, and octopus?