“Who was the first person who decided to eat this?” is the joke—a good one, too, funny because it’s true about sea-life. Who first appraised the aquatic-arachnid abdomen of a lobster as fit for consumption? Who thought to smash open the knobby callous of an oyster, saw its slurry grey innards and thought, yeah, I’m going to put that in my mouth? The uninitiated can be understandably nauseated by all that oddness dredged up from inhospitable depths, gathered from a silent realm that dismisses our warm skin and embarrassment of air. But I’ve become familiar with the oddness of seafood: gummily writhing, pungent, and filled with alien insides, always some startling combination of colours, with a propensity towards surprise squirting, goo, and gravity.
We veered off the road at a sign promoting “Live Crab” and acquired the tank’s final three. Two unlikely old friends and I, listening gamely as a white-haired proprietress explained the best practice was a swift stab in the solar-plexus, a deft de-gut, and ten minutes in a scalding steam. Yes, we nodded. Of course. “Turn off the music for a second,” said Ramin from the backseat where he sat beside the plastic bag. So I did, and we listened to a calcified clicking as we pulled into our cabin’s driveway. Inside, the bag sat on the table, pooling water. Brendan remembered a sudden phobia of crustaceans; “I cannot, you guys, I cannot do it, I simply can’t.” A small amount of hemming ensued, and to end it with a curt, deft courage, I volunteered, pulling out our first victim, its shell a raw brick red, its mouth bubbling like a baby’s. On its back, on the cutting board, with my knife an inch above its sweet-spot, it didn’t know what was coming. None of us did. “Ok” I thought, with the verve of cliff-dives and roller-coasters, public-speeches and winter-swims, “now.” The blade pierced straight through, pinning the crab like a butterfly to a corkboard, sending an exorbitant voltage through its every extremity, suddenly surging with so much more life than we’d suspected it had. Brendan leapt screaming into the bedcovers, in an eye-blink instant I was mortified and behind the bathroom door yelling “oh god finish him Ramin, finish him.” In a cravat and a Kenzo sweater, Ramin sluiced the fatal stroke, though the legs kept sparking with an interminable force even after I’d coaxed green innards out with a bare finger and washed them down the sink. We had two more to go. Within the hour, we ate, unspeaking, with our hands, sucking to extract all flesh, silky butter drips and utter bliss, pulling strandy white meat from claws, the only noises slurping sounds and the cracking, crunching of shell.
“Salmon are a generous fish” was the most memorable line from a documentary I watched on the depletion of wild local populations due to heinous aquaculture effluent. It means that salmon are a crucial part of something unfathomably bigger than themselves, part of a greater purpose. Basically, it means salmon have discovered the meaning of life. Hearing it, I thought of a sunny-cold childhood day I was brought to a riverbank to observe an influx of eagles, a sojourn which, when proposed to my young self, exclusively highlighted the eagle-angle. What was omitted, of course, is that the photogenic flock was in-town-this-week-only to feed on a mass of fetid fish flesh, piles of pungent pink bodies expired after a dire pilgrimage and chaste sex in cold water. Nobody told me the ground would be thick with decaying fish. The birds’ gluttonous joy was palpable, the corpses on which they fed staring with gummy eyes empty of the mysterious spark that got them here, hours inland. Years later I was on an island renown for its stoic old-growth trees, a place so sparsely populated every person was the patron-spirit of their profession (the one taxi driver in town the tempestuous god of transport, the food-supplier an Elven forager of sprouts, shrooms and seaweed) where I had a conversation with a girl facilitating sea-plane excursions. An undergrad biologist in her summer skin, she spoke about the massive trees with a serene intensity. “The regional lore was that the salmon made the trees,” she effused, a warm-eyed sprite in her sunlit, dockside office, “Of course that sounded crazy. But then researchers cross-sectioned trunks to observe rings and found the most impressive years of growth conflated with the largest salmon runs. Bears would carry so many salmon inland that their bodies would pile up and decompose and the proteins would feed the trees.” Smiling, she exclaimed, “the trees eat the salmon.” Cut open anything is these parts and it’ll bleed pink.
My uncles in Croatia were fishermen. Things didn’t scare them. The fig-glutted wasp that stung my face was nothing to cry over; yes, sea cucumbers shot their guts out (and no, they didn’t care). When a baby octopus attached itself to one uncle’s wrist, he laughed and touted its admirable little grip before wrenching its head off (the flaccid, milky tentacles were later found Saran-wrapped in the fridge in a bowl). “See that shed over there, by the marina,” they said. I did. “Go look inside.” I left the sun-bleached salt-and-seashell afternoon and braved the briny black shack where my eyes lazily polaroid-developed to see white plastic buckets bloom from the darkness. It took longer still to perceive their contents were alive, and writhing. At first it seemed the buckets were filled with marine millipedes, thousands of aquatic worms thrashing in a brackish nightmare heap. But each bucket contained only one, each three meters long, oil-black, segmented bodies folded horrifyingly over themselves in convoluted coils, infinite red legs pedaling furiously. Extracted from rock crevasses, these were captive octopus bait. My uncles would chop one into a platter of canapés and hook them off the boat. When they returned it was the giant octopus’ turn to furiously writhe, a ball of pure muscle and rage in enemy territory. Its head (too firmly attached for a casual rip) was pushed inside the sunburst of its arms, inverting it like a balled up sock, and thus disgraced it was beaten against the jagged white coastal rocks. For hours, they would slam its body down again and again, brutality, and beer as they took breaks. “Tenderizing” they’d laugh. After an infinity of fleshy barbaric percussion, the limp heap was handed to my mom to carry to the hot stone stove inside, its pale, puckered underbelly splayed. As she walked the rosemary-lined path from the seaside to house, a single dangling arm summoned a spark, and slowly but intently, reached up to her wrist, encircled it, and squeezed. Never surrender. My portion of the smokey, chewy meat went to waste. Pushing my dinner around my plate that night, I only ate potatoes.
Illustration by Will Beeslaar.