SEATTLE IS A SAD, wet place in the depths of winter, and sometimes, this time of year, I head downtown looking for a little nightlife. Tonight I drive past the Space Needle and the bars and nightclubs of Belltown, past the row of shiny new biotech buildings on the waterfront, and park at the foot of the old grain terminal. Next door is the public fishing pier. The Happy Hooker bait shop is shuttering for the night, but the crowd on the pier has a high-powered halogen spotlight hooked up to a car battery and everyone is on their feet, pressed up against the railing and gibbering in a dozen different languages. Anticipation is thick. There’s a shout at the far end of the pier, then cheering as tentacled beasts come flying out of the water, squirting water and ink. The squid bite is on.

I’d been thinking about squid lately because there’s an Italian dish I’d heard about that was supposed to be a Christmas specialty in Venice, a dish with cuttlefish, which is a close relative of the squid. It seemed so over the top to me, and I just had to try it. In Italy they call it risotto nero con seppie—black risotto with cuttlefish. Black because of the ink. There aren’t too many jet black foods out there, certainly not as a main course.

I didn’t buy into the theory that the squid was trying to mate with my jig. It was a voracious predator, no doubt about it.

I resolved to learn the secrets of risotto and told my wife Marty I was determined to make a feast that would impress even her relatives in the old country. Not that I would be seeing any of these relatives. They live in Italy, in the shadow of Vesuvius. But I liked to think we would go over there one day, maybe even for good. I liked to imagine the day we met Martha’s relatives, how we would visit the cemetery where her people were laid to rest, and then, after stumbling through ancient ruins and meeting one person after another in town with the same last name, Silano—Martha’s name—we would return to the family casa. In my fantasy I needed to be prepared. They would be welcoming in the Italian tradition. I would offer to help in the kitchen. “You cook?” “Sì.” Well, sort of.

More squid plopping into buckets woke me from my impossible reverie. I was missing the bite. But before I could occupy an open slot along the rail, a tiny Cambodian woman, her face a welter of wrinkles, beat me to it. She looked up at me with an enigmatic smile before turning her attention back to the water below. “Gotta be quick, bro,” someone called out down the line. He stepped aside to give me a little room, and again, before I could claim the spot, the same woman snuck in like a California parker, this time letting loose a string of what I took to be sarcastic Khmer invective. My would-be ally on the rail snickered.

“She’s going for the spotlight, bro.”

This essay and the accompanying recipe are excerpted from Langdon Cook’s new book Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager (Skipstone, 2009).

 

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When the bite is on, squid jigging looks easy, though like anything else it’s a skill that takes practice to learn. First the squid jigger needs to figure out how deep to fish his lure. Then comes the jig itself: the wrist-flicking motion of the rod that makes the lure dance tantalizingly up and down. When a squid latches onto the lure, a barely perceptible twinge runs up the line, along the rod, and into the neural receptors of the squid jigger’s fingers. So it is with most fishing, but the strike of the squid is subtle, to say the least, which is why jiggers are constantly jigging, like action painters covering a huge canvas. Some jiggers think the squid waits until that imperceptible moment between the jig’s falling and rising to attack while the glowing lure is hanging in midwater and vulnerable; others say the squid attacks on the downbeat. Still others insist the squid isn’t attacking at all—it’s loving, they say. The idea is to pull up just as the squid has wrapped itself on the lure. Then it’s stuck and hurtling toward the surface, with the weight of the water keeping it pinned on the jig. As you look down the row of jiggers, the movement of rods bending up and down has its own mechanical if somewhat disjointed rhythm, like a contraption from the earliest days of the assembly line. The kid next to me, from Nicaragua, was dressed in an Oakland Raiders windbreaker. He introduced himself as Victor. Victor was hauling up dinner like some kind of squid Svengali.

“Bro, you gotta get the technique right,” he said to me, taking pity on my empty bucket. Yeah, yeah, I knew about the technique. It wasn’t like I was a novice, though admittedly I was a little bit rusty. I hadn’t been squid jigging since the previous winter. I brought the rod tip up and let it sink. Just as I thought my jig was at the bottom of its stroke, I lifted up again. A nearly impalpable tug vibrated up the line and through the tip of my rod, enough so that my fingers started reeling before my mind even registered the impulse. The squid broke the surface and shot out a powerful stream as if from a water pistol. Victor sidestepped to avoid the ink that came next.

“Calamar…a nice one!”

“Not bad.” I shook the nine-incher off the jig and into my bucket, where it slithered around, turning the outraged colors of an electric revolving billboard. Like its relatives the octopus and cuttlefish, the squid is considered one of the most intelligent invertebrates around, more brainy than many high-rung animals with backbones. I tried to put this fact out of my mind. On my next cast I had another one. “That’s it,” Victor said approvingly. “You wanna make it sexy-like. The squid wants to get busy with your jig.” Though young Victor here was something of a guru with the squid jig, I was pretty sure he was wrong about the motivation of the fearsome mollusks. I didn’t buy into the theory that the squid was trying to mate with my jig. It was a voracious predator, no doubt about it.

I wasn’t expecting Martha to be awake when I got back. It was nearly 1am. I left the bucket on the kitchen floor and started making preparations to clean my catch. She padded into the kitchen in her socks, quiet enough that I didn’t hear her—until she let out a little yelp. “What have you brought into this house?”

“Those are squid. Nothing to be afraid of.” I tried snatching one out of the bucket to show her, but it clamped onto the rim with a couple of tentacles and wouldn’t let go. Anyway, Marty was already on her way back to bed. “I don’t want to see a single suction cup in the sink in the morning,” she called from the stairs. Some people would rather not know what they’re eating. They don’t realize suction cups are food.

This essay and the accompanying recipe are excerpted from Langdon Cook’s new book Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager (Skipstone, 2009).

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