Pop Culture

Before You Eat That Octopus

Charred octopus at Oporto.
Charred octopus at Oporto. Photo by Troy Fields
Welcome to Before You Eat That, which broaches all the annoying subjects that make you highly uncomfortable and that you don't want to talk about. This is for all you schadenfreude joykills out there. First up, the ever continuing saga of the octopus. Are they perfectly okay to eat or are they just extremely smart aliens you shouldn't be putting in your mouth?

Octopus may be a great low-fat option for seafood lovers, but for some people, it's too intelligent, and far too superior an animal to eat.

 "Like dolphins," a colleague recently said when I shared with him how, several months ago over a candlelit dinner at New Orleans's famed bohemian wine yard Bacchanal, I'd been chastised by a group of young novelists for ordering octopus, the chargrilled dish arriving to a series of hushed tsk-tsks the way only a group of young novelists dressed as they were, in zombie and cowboy Halloween attire, can effectively provide while pawing at beef carpaccio, kale salads and short ribs.

But no, the octopus might even be smarter than the dolphin, or at least one was smarter just this month, The Sun reported, when it managed to stick its tentacles all up in some poor porpoise's throat and down into its esophagus when the mammal tried to swallow the cephalopod whole. The dolphin was found washed ashore, suffocated to death, the octopus still clinging to its insides and hanging partially out of its mouth like silly string. The porpoise had been known to scientists in Perth, Australia, as Gilligan, the name ever foreboding in its homage to sheer ineptitude.

In 2014, The New Yorker's Silvia Killingsworth was already investigating people's reluctance to eat an animal readily known to decorate its lair and predict the World's Cup.

In 2015 The Soul of an Octopus, a nonfiction book by Sy Montgomery that investigates their alien senses and personalities, was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2016, an op-ed in The Guardian argued that octopuses shouldn't be eaten because they can navigate mazes and solve puzzles and "one was observed by a researcher bringing rocks back to its den, stacking them at the entrance, then going to sleep with peace of mind." Gwyneth Paltrow, it has been widely reported, does not eat octopuses because “they have more neurons in their brains than we do," which is actually not true. Humans do have more neurons than octopuses. Though just this year, The Atlantic reported, scientists discovered octopuses can edit their RNA to recode genes, which is extremely rare; not even humans can really do that.

For those of us still wanting to eat octopus — people have been eating it for millennia — Houston actually has plenty to offer when it comes to this Spanish and Mediterranean staple.

At Coltivare, chef Ryan Pera chars octopus with fingerling potatoes, favas and romesco in a black garlic oil. It's dynamite. Meanwhile, at State of Grace, chef Bobby Matos serves a large tentacle grilled asado style and topped with cilantro, peanuts and a Thai curry sauce. And charred octopus with potatoes, polvo com batatas, is a signature dish at Oporto. A few years back, the former Houston Press food editor Kaitlin Steinberg described Caracol's octopus cocktail as having meat "so sweet and tender you're apt to forget you're chewing on tentacles at all." Perhaps important when you don't want to be reminded that octopuses in fact carry more than half of some 500 million neurons in their arms alone.
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Gwendolyn Knapp is the food editor at the Houston Press. A sixth-generation Floridian, she is still torn as to whether she likes smoked fish dip or queso better.