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Horrifying Food; Plus Stuever on Anna Nicole

[My column in the Sunday magazine.]

The other day on my way home, I stopped at the fishmonger's and bought some fresh octopus. All of this was out of character. I should have known that complications would ensue.

This was, I should note, a very upscale fishmonger. This wasn't a guy wearing an apron stained with blood, roe, scales and the occasional fully intact fish head. The store is just a little retail area in front of a super-swank seafood restaurant where you can spend something like $25 for a single oyster. If you order "clam strips," you get a plate with a dancing clam that literally takes its own shell off -- $275. We're talking fancy.

So anyway, I scanned the seafood offerings in the glass case, and I saw a little sign saying octopus was $3.95 a pound, which I would normally describe as "dirt cheap" except that, at this market, dirt goes for $6.50 a pound. I asked for a little container of octopus and was soon on my merry way, even though -- key factoid -- I never really paused to look at the octopus. I was too obsessed with price to waste time examining the actual "food" (the use of quotes here being ominous foreshadowing of what is to come).

Like most people, I was raised pretty much entirely on Fritos. As a grown-up, I usually cook big pots of manfood (chili, gumbo, stew), to the point that my friends say I'm a manfood bore and my editor says I can't write about manfood anymore. These are a bunch of celery nibblers who can't appreciate the drama, dare I say the pageantry, of the big pot. They don't understand how momentous it is when, after six hours of simmering, the flesh of the beef rib finally separates from [pausing here to clean up drool on keyboard] the bone.

But they're right; I need to branch out. We all do. Americans don't eat smart. We eat junk food loaded with chemicals produced in laboratories. Scientists can take some carbon and argon and helium and whatnot, and splice in an atom of plutonium, and make a molecule that registers on the tongue as "blueberry."

Feeling adventurous, I wound up going home with a little plastic container of wild-harvested octopus. The fishmonger had told me to tenderize the octopus by letting it simmer for 20 minutes in salt water. So I got out my skillet, added water and salt, retrieved from the refrigerator the plastic container of the still-unexamined octopus, dumped the contents into the skillet, and . . .

SHREEEK SHREEEK SHREEEK . . .

Six baby octopi!

I'm not sure what I expected my purchase to look like, but I assumed it would be chopped up, or rearranged or rendered in some fashion such that it would not be so freakin' octopoidal. When you order calamari, you don't get an entire squid. But it said right there on my receipt: "Octopus (baby)." These octopi were gray and limp, with fat heads and wiggly tentacles, and they were very small. Despite my initial shock, they were almost cute. Imagine how you'd feel if you ordered "rabbit" at a restaurant and the waiter brought you something with adorable, floppy ears.

I realize this is not as dramatic as eating, for example, fried grubs or medallions of squirrel or live monkey brains, which I think we can agree is a dish in which every word -- "live," "monkey" and "brains" -- deserves its own individual throw-up session. There are people reading this who cook octopus all the time and don't see why I'm fussing. Octopus is right there in The Joy of Cooking, complete with a wonderful passage by the authors saying that, before you cook an octopus, you should give it a decisive whack to make sure it's dead. But this was my first time. Scary. The key in such situations is to pretend that you're French. The French can eat all kinds of gross stuff. Abundant wine helps.

As the water heated, the tentacles began to contract. The water turned brown. This was proving quite aromatic. Naturally, I called all the kids into the kitchen and insisted that they examine the spectacle. They obliged with shrieks, yelps, theatrical revulsion. I realized that Horrifying Food might actually be even more entertaining than manfood.

After I simmered the octopi, I sauteed them with butter and garlic. It is a well-documented fact that anything, including shoelaces, is good when sauteed with butter and garlic.

The octopi became, at this point, more like food and less like oceanic organisms. They had become a singular: "octopus."

Served over brown rice, the octopus dinner was chewy, pungent, but delicious.

Which leads to an inspired thought.

Octopus chili.

--


Now here's a provocative Stuever column on Anna Nicole Smith:

As the details of Anna Nicole Smith's death (you may have heard about it already) were being orgiastically reported in print and on TV, I was spending time at a spiritual retreat house in New Mexico that is staffed by nuns, one of whom, for reasons I'll never have enough space to explain, is my 73-year-old mother. Over dinner one night, the sisters asked me who, exactly, Anna Nicole was, and why everyone was so interested in her. I did my best to explain the basics of the "famous for being famous" dilemma, and also some of the essential Vickie Lynn Hogan narrative: from Mexia, Tex., greasy spoons to Playboy centerfolds to Guess jeans ads to . . . Well, I cut the biography short, and instead focused on the myriad legal issues, and opined that what might be interesting to people is the underlying tragedy of a beautiful woman's messes. Thus informed, the sisters reacted with sadness and their characteristic withholding of judgment.

Outside this peaceful cocoon were two sources of noise: the constant Anna Nicole coverage and the far more irritating outcry over the constant Anna Nicole coverage. Media watchdog groups started releasing statistics of just how much airtime was going to Anna Nicole, in lieu of news from Iraq. This pious nagging has become the usual accompaniment whenever a bizarre or shocking celebrity occurrence briefly hogs all the air time and news hole: How far has America fallen that it is helpless to resist such pap? How dumb are we? How dumb are our media? These are not altogether bad questions, and as the Anna Nicole show moved into the courtroom, it was indeed possible to feel that we'd collectively reached a nadir: How hard would it be to look away? Is there some sort of nationwide cultural rehab for so many minds in the gutter?

The argument falls apart. Those tut-tutters fail to understand that partakers of celeb gossip aren't all one dumb herd, but include many -- maybe a majority -- who view meta-mythological goings-on smartly, through a knowing prism (or so we tell ourselves). They also miss the most obvious fact: Anna Nicole was interesting alive, and fascinating dead.

I left the retreat house on a Saturday, driving the long way to Hollywood, to write about the Oscars. I stopped at a Shell mega-station and bought the largest diet soda possible, and a People magazine. "You look like you need your caffeine, so I'm not going to tell you 'Good morning,' " the clerk remarked. I grunted in assent.

"But would it cheer you up if I told you Britney Spears has shaved her head?" she asked.

Oh, immensely.

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 24, 2007; 9:03 AM ET
 
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