The Story Of An Octopus (And What It Tells Us About Our Culture)
This is a fascinating story about Seattle’s love of high-end, locally sourced food, versus Seattle’s progressive belief that intelligent, charismatic species shouldn’t be brought thrashing to the dinner plate. It starts by describing the legal capture, in harrowing detail, of a Giant Pacific Octopus, by diver Dylan Mayer. And then it explains what happened next:
In a city finely attuned to both the ethics of food sourcing and poster-worthy animal causes (the spotted owl, the killer whale and marbled murrelet among them), Mayer’s exploits became an instant cause célèbre. On Nov. 1 and 2, Seattle’s competing news stations reported the octopus hunt. The next day, The Seattle Times ran the story on the front page. On Web forums, Seattleites tracked down the teenager’s name and address through the clues in the photos: the truck’s license plate, the high school named on Mayer’s sweatshirt and the inspection sticker affixed to his tank. “I hope this sick [expletive] gets tangled in a gill net next time he dives and thus removes a potential budding sociopath before it graduates from invertebrates to mammals,” read one typical comment, which received 52 “thumbs-ups.” Around the same time, Scott Lundy, one of the men who had confronted Mayer in Cove 2, issued a “Save the G.P.O.” petition to ban octopus harvesting from the beach and examine the practice statewide. By the next day, he had collected 1,105 signatures.
Across Elliott Bay, at the same time, a much subtler food sourcer was at work. Chef Matthew Dillon was building his highly anticipated new restaurant, Bar Sajor (pronounced “sigh-your”) in Pioneer Square. After the success of his first, Sitka & Spruce, Dillon, 39, earned an unsought reputation as the consummate locavore in a city filled with them. He cultivated rare herbs and foraged for mushrooms in the foothills of the Cascades; whereas many Brooklyn restaurants are only now coming around to wood sorrel and perilla, Dillon has been cooking with them since 1995. At Bar Sajor, there would be a rotisserie and a wood-fire oven, but no gas range; Dillon would make his own yogurt and vinegars, ferment his own vegetables and change his menu every day depending on what looked fresh and interesting — including, as it happened, giant Pacific octopus.
So as the “Save the G.P.O.” campaign raged this spring, the city raved about Dillon’s octopus salad. In The Stranger, the influential alt-weekly magazine, Bethany Jean Clement described it as having “a restrained oceangoing flavor, a bouncy but tender texture — sometimes a little chewy but never rubbery,” plated that day with “a thick walnut sauce, dill for freshness, and an oozing egg yolk for vivid creaminess and color.” The Seattle Times also heaped praise. “Bar Sajor Is Matt Dillon’s Finest Yet,” ran one Friday headline, just a week after another: “New Hunting Rules Likely for Puget Sound Octopus.” Whenever the salad appeared on the menu, it sold out. Inevitably this posed a most uncomfortable question for Seattle’s food community: should it save the giant Pacific octopus or just eat it?
You should read the whole thing, which has some surprising twists, to learn how it all ended. But it is a good example of how knowing where an animal on your plate came from, and what it went through in the process of getting there, can change how you think about it (previously, Seattle-ites didn’t have a problem with Asian-sourced octopus that simply arrived on plates like any anonymous commodity, with no backstory). It is also an encouraging sign of growing empathy for the animal lives that get destroyed as we indulge our predilection for food porn.
But there is no reason that empathy shouldn’t extend to any animal and any food, from bacon to a burger. When people really think about the ethics of eating animals, and are aware of the experience of the animal, they start to question. Obliviousness to the process (whether willful or not), and what it involves no matter the species, is probably the single most important factor that enables people to happily eat animals.