Friday, December 13, 2013

Artifical Calamari

Sometimes I figure out what I’m feeling by listening to what I say. I’m not forced to talk nearly as much as when I was working. On some days, when I get to the shack early and work all morning, I don’t utter a word till almost noon. I tend to remember what I say now, because I say fairly little compared to when I was directing a social service agency. When I do talk to people they sometimes ask me something like this:

“So do you miss work?” And I reply along these lines:

“Funny, but I worried for years that I would miss work terribly. I’d done it for so long. I didn’t know how it would feel. But when I quit working, I liked it right away and thought of work very little. It surprised me. So no, I don’t miss it. Really.”

What I don’t miss most is the intrusion of painful reality, unimaginable happenings, into my thoughts. I have even found that I can go back to instances where I was interrupted by the reality of work, just as I was beginning to think something through, and pick it up where I left off.

That’s where I got the idea for this week’s story. While still employed I was driving somewhere, listening to an intriguing episode of This American Life on National Public Radio, when I got a call on my cell phone. It was a call I had to take. I looked at my cell phone, saw who was calling, and knew I had to have a frank discussion, probably a long one. I hit mute on my car radio. I figured I could always look up the story later. Later arrived this week. I rediscovered a trivial story too good to pass up.

I recalled this whole thing a month ago while buying Pacific Cod at Kroger. I’d never heard of Pacific Cod. I thought maybe it was a name made up to capitalize on the solid reputation of Atlantic Cod, the standard tasty fish of Friday night fish fries in the Midwest. You can get it broiled now, but the old time aficionados go for the battered deep fried kind with fries. Add hand battered deep fried onion rings as an appetizer and you have some serious grease going on. At least there’s the salad bar.

But there it was in the fish case, Pacific Cod. I baked it and found it not as firm, not as tasty, as Atlantic Cod but not bad. I looked up Pacific Cod on the Internet. Turns out no one agrees on the name of this fish. Some call that species grey cod, certainly not Alaskan black cod or ling cod, while others just call it Pollock. There must be tons of Pollock out there, along with Whiting, and someone in the fish industry must be dying to call it something else so it sells better. Whatever Pacific Cod is, in the end it is cheap protein with hardly any fat, and while it cries out for some sort of sauce to give it zing there’s no cause to turn your nose up over it.

Turns out this whole labeling shiftiness is nothing new. They even have a name for it. Surimi, the fine art of disguising one fish as another, dates back to 12th-century Japan. Basically, Surimi makers grind up cheaper fish and craft the resulting paste to mimic the look, taste, and texture of more expensive fish. I imagine it as fish sticks on a much higher level. Surimi took a giant and profitable leap forward in 1993 when Oregon State University’s Jae Park, a food-science professor and the creator of fake crab or crabstick (Park’s preferred term), began leading the Surimi School, an annual short format seminar in Astoria. Since then, he’s trained more than 4,500 people to twist, color, and mold lesser fish into fancy forgeries. Last year, Seafood Executive magazine named the professor one of the 100 most powerful leaders in the global seafood industry. Why? Crabstick sells for $3-$4 a pound. Dungeness Crab sells for $30-$35 a pound. And while crabstick is a processed food that contains lots of sodium along with cryoprotectants, artificial flavoring, and coloring all added to the base of ground Whiting or Pollock, it has less cholesterol than natural crab (before the garlic butter) and it’s sustainable. We, the bulging we of all us humans on the planet, can eat Snow Crabs and King Crabs into extinction but we’ll never, they say, run out of Pollock and Whiting.

What caught my ear that day before I muted the radio because of pressing work, which turned out to be January 11th of this year, was artificial calamari made from some kind of pork product. Calamari is Italian plural for calamaro, which is a squid. The Italians claim they made calamari famous by slicing it into rings, deep frying it, squeezing lemon over it, and serving it with marinara sauce. Truth is calamari, or squid, is served all over the world. But where ever and however it is served it has always seemed to me to have a distinctive texture and taste. How, I thought, could you possibly create a passable equivalent to calamari? I was intrigued.

This was an episode of This American Life that seemed somehow whimsical. Lots of background music building fake tension. But my mind was on much more important things and I missed it. I went to the This American Life website and listened to the whole podcast yesterday. You can do that too by going to and registering at their site and going to the archives. I borrowed heavily from NPR’s script to write this piece. Whether you listen to the podcast or read the rest of the story you have to take this in. It’s a food science horror story.

A reporter for This American Life (TAL), Ben Calhoun, got a tip about a farmer "with some standing in the pork industry" who is in charge of "a pork producing operation that spans several states." One fine day this farmer was visiting a pork processing plant in Oklahoma, and noticed boxes stacked on the floor labeled "artificial calamari." Asked what that meant, Ron Meek, the plant's extremely talkative and credible sounding manager, and friend of the nameless farmer not willing to go on the record, replied "Bung. It's hog rectum." For clarity, Calhoun adds "Rectum that would be sliced into rings, deep fried, and boom, there you have it."

Rectum is of course a nicer word for asshole. An individual piece of bung, hog rectum, or asshole would be a ten to twelve inch length of large intestine leading to the actual rectum end point, a pink wrinkly looking pear sort of thing on the one end. Ron Meek described them as soft tubes resembling noodles.

The farmer, who confirmed the story but chose to remain nameless, declined to go on record with the reporter about the incident because his girlfriend warned him about his name being forever linked to pig rectum in Google searches. Smart man. But manager Ron Meek did agree to speak on the record. He claimed he never personally saw the label "artificial calamari" but that's what he was told by the people he worked for, and he believed them. And in an interview, his bosses backed the assertion that pig rectum was being sold for use as imitation calamari. They just couldn't say where.

I know this sounds bad. This might be easier for me because I grew up on a farm, but consider this: if you eat sausage you’re eating various meats packed in diligently washed and cleaned intestine which lives just up the street, so to speak, from the bung in question. Bung just gets a little thicker at the end there. As for the calamari question, the plant manager wouldn't say what happened to the bung once it got out the door, but confirmed that they ship a lot of it to Asia, particularly China. Everyone assumes it primarily ends up in the sausage, most of which is after all “whole hog.” Now that’s a two edged sword. To get the hams you have to take the asshole too. Obviously it would be illegal in America to serve pork rectum and call it calamari, and the USDA says they've never heard of anyone trying to pass pork bung as squid. Officially they say that.

However one food industry attorney told TAL "the regulation we have is not designed to catch an offense like this. It's aimed mostly at sanitation and food safety. If someone wanted to do it, chances are they'd get away with it." Given the fact that pork bung is sold at less than half the cost of calamari, the financial incentive is enormous.

What sealed the deal for me after listening to the podcast, what made me believe the unconfirmed story, was the taste test. The reporter, having run into a brick wall of no solid informant he could quote, turns instead to plausibility. At that point he becomes less a journalist and more of a creative soul. He appeals to his sister, a chef, to cook pork bung side by side with calamari and conduct a taste test with his friends at the radio station. As she prepared the two products for deep frying she was doubtful. While the squid retained its ring shape the pork bung twisted into something that looked mangled. Appearance aside, she believed the bung, having been marinated for the life of the pig in its own shit, could not shake that taste. To counteract that possibility she brined half of it, soaking it in salt water for a full day, while preparing the remainder simply as fresh clean pork bung. She breaded the squid and bung the same, fried it the same, and served it blindly in three batches at her restaurant to a group of volunteers willing to help the reporter with his story.

Especially poignant was the story of a young Italian man who had just started working at the station. His family ate Calamari regularly both at family dinners and at restaurants. His grandmother used to buy her own squid and make it herself. His fear was that he would not be able to tell the difference and be forever jinxed from eating calamari again owing simply to the possibility that he could be chewing a pig’s ass.

As she was frying the bung, the reporter’s sister was amazed to see the twisted form smooth out into a presentable ring during frying. In baskets side by side in the hot oil she saw little or no difference. She figured the taste would give it away or if not the taste the texture. To her, texture is the wild card in food recognition. She believes we love the feel as much as the taste of our favorite foods. She brought the plates to the table. Standard calamari made from squid, pork bung brined in order to neutralize any bad taste, and straight up fresh pork bung sliced, breaded and fried. The tasting began.

Absolutely no difference. As many thought the calamari was pork bung as believed the pork bung was sliced fried squid. Texture, taste appearance-nothing was different from one plate to the other. It was amazing, and devastating to the Italian man. He left the restaurant early, mourning the perhaps lifetime loss of calamari and wondering what he could ever tell his family. Simply knowing he might possibly be eating a pig’s asshole led him to vow never to take that chance again.

This is not a nailed down story. It couldn’t be published in a newspaper. Some would ask why it ran on radio. I’d say its because that’s the way life is many times. You can’t prove things are true but you know in your heart they are. This American Life did not prove that pork bung is being sold as calamari. But it raised the possibility. That’s where good stories often start. Stores aren’t fact. But they are great aren’t they? From the day I heard the basics of this story on the radio I imagined a meeting where the idea, the concept of artificial calamari, was developed. And having heard the pod cast, it’s now sort of busting out of me onto this computer screen.

A small but established food distribution company holds its regular weekly meeting. It is chaired by Bob, the company president, but the agenda rarely changes. The meeting is designed by and large as a vehicle for supervising his staff, which is the management team. At the table is Art, a food scientist in charge of product development; Gary, Chief Financial Officer, and Stephanie, newest member of the team and the company’s marketing director. Alice, Bob’s secretary, takes notes. The meeting starts with a report from Art, the food scientist.

“Well it’s no secret that my staff and I have been working on developing an exciting new product, and I’m happy to say I have solid information to share with you about it. I think this is a terrific opportunity for our company. We’re at a point where I need your input and frankly, your help. It has endless financial potential but there is considerable risk involved.”

“What is it Art?” said Stephanie. “Rumor around the plant is that it could be the next crabstick.”

“I know, I’ve heard that rumor too and I’m flattered by the comparison. It’s like crabstick but with some important differences. It’s an artificial calamari. It can be sold as a frozen product, pre breaded ready for deep frying, or it can be sold fresh and uncooked with an even longer shelf life than real calamari.”

“What’s the production cost?” asked Gary. Gary had been through these ideas before with Art and found them financially unfeasible. He wished they would come to him sooner on these things so they didn’t have to waste their time on dead losers.

“Less than half the cost of calamari,” Art said. He gave Gary a steady smile, as if to shut him up. “Half.”

“That sounds too good to be true,” Gary replied.

“But what is it really? Stephanie asked. “Some kind of cheap ground fish mixed with egg whites and starch? What’s in it?”

“That’s the beauty of it and the challenge. It is not a seafood product. We can get all of it we want right here in the Midwest.”

“It’s not that freshwater Asian Carp everyone’s trying to sell us out of the Illinois River I hope.”

“No, it’s even more basic. It’s a pork product. No one would have ever imagined this. It’s a pork product and it’s so perfect, so similar in every way to calamari that you can’t believe it.”

“Pork?” Gary and Stephanie spoke at the same time. “How can a pork product even resemble a sea food product?”

Bob cut in for the first time, having been beaming since the start of Art’s presentation. “That’s what I thought too Gary. When Art first came to me with this breakthrough idea I thought it was absolutely crazy but it grows on you. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. So please, both of you. Hear Art out on this. Show them the pictures Art.”

Art brought out glossy color photos of unbreaded calamari side by side with his artificial calamari. They appeared to be of the same size and have the same color. The artificial calamari was twisted.

“The artificial calamari needs no processing. Unlike Surimi, where similar products are ground and reconstituted with other ingredients to resemble the original, this product is a single tissue, a single body part, that when sliced and cooked is virtually indistinguishable from calamari.”

“It doesn’t look wrinkly?” Gary asked.

“Miraculously, the wrinkles smooth out when it cooks. Takes on the exact shape as the squid.” Art said. He flashed two more pictures of identical plates of round, breaded, cooked appetizers, the real next to the fake.

Gary looked closely at the picture of the artificial calamari. He’d been in the food industry for a long time. “I’ve never seen a pig part like this. What part of the pig is it from?”

Art was quick to say “It’s akin to sausage casing.”

"Sausage casing is intestines. What’s akin to intestine?” He looked up at Bob and Art with a puzzled look
“I’m warning you, this is the hard part,” Bob said. “This is where I first balked at the concept.”

“It’s bung. Pork bung.” Art said. The room went quiet.

“Bung as in bunghole?” Stephanie said. There was a pause.

“Yes,” Art said.

“You’re proposing that this company… and I as its marketing director….try to sell a pig’s ass as an Italian seafood appetizer.”

“Stephanie you won’t believe how it tastes. It’s uncanny how much it tastes like calamari. And it’s cheap. We can undercut calamari by twenty percent and still take a huge profit on this artificial stuff. I’m telling you, this can work.”

“You’re nuts! You can’t honestly believe that people will sit down to a plate of deep fried pork ass and eat it like it was just taken out of the Mediterranean by a cute Italian fisherman. It’s asshole! You would be asking people to eat asshole. And I would be asking them to buy it with a straight face. It’s not going to happen. Alice would you eat a pig's ass as if it were seafood and enjoy it?”

Bob, usually calm and in control at these meetings, erupted. “Alice stop taking notes.”

“Stephanie do you want this company to be successful? Or do you want the Chinese to make all the money? Do you think Qingdao International isn’t looking at this very thing right now? How long do you think this will stay a secret? Calamari is a billion dollar industry for Christ's sake. With a B. If we capture even ten percent of that market…OK, maybe it doesn’t sell well in the U.S.. But if we can boost sales overseas to get a ten percent share, that’s a $100 million dollars. $100 million. Do you want to add $100 million to this company’s sales? Do you think that might result in some bigger salaries around here? Well I’ll tell you what, I do want that kind of success and so do our stockholders. I want to this company to be successful and I know we can because I’ve got one of the best management teams in the business. Now if we just stay positive and work together, we can overcome the image difficulties this product presents and meet this challenge.”

Stephanie sat back in her chair and folded her arms in silence. Gary looked at Art, then Bob. The silence was becoming uncomfortable. He turned and spoke to Stephanie.

“He’s right about the money you know.”

Art followed closely with a suggestion for Stephanie. “We’re counting on you to come up with a better name.”

“Than pork bung?” she said.


Bob smiled broadly at her, putting his hand on hers. “You’re probably the key to making this work Stephanie. We’re all counting on you.”

And thus is born, maybe, a new product to feed the world. See what you can do when you think about the trivial? When you go soft on the facts and instead make up a story? God is it fun. Shut off your phone and turn up the radio. Merry Christmas.

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