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28 march 2014

Richard Schweid's Octopus for the Reaktion Animal series notes the paradoxes behind the creature's well-known high intelligence. Most smart animals live a relatively long time: apes and people, elephants, dolphins, parrots, ravens. Most smart creatures are opportunistic omnivores, and most, needless to say, are veterbrates. Usually, they're also fairly social, which makes sense: stimulation and interaction require intelligence. But octopuses are solitary and very short-lived hunters. How did the octopus get its brain?

The best guesses, says Schweid, take account of the special nature of the sea and the octopus's niche therein. Sea creatures tend to be hunters anyway, by any land analogy. Octopuses are opportunistic ones, and must catch a wide variety of prey that present highly diverse defenses. Schweid quotes Jennifer Mather's observation that octopuses, like humans, "have considerable variability among individuals and the ability of being able to change their behavior to help them survive" (77). Hence the hypothesis, supported by some but not all evidence, that octopuses can learn from observation. Even from instructional videos, which is more than I've ever been able to do.

Even if they're not empathetic problem-solvers of great mental depth, octopuses are clever and willful animals. It seems a shame to turn them into sushi, but we eat far more intelligent mammals that we diverged from on the evolutionary shrub far more recently. Octopus offer a high yield of protein, minimal waste, and a flood of rich umami flavor. And they're super-easy to catch: just drop a pot onto the ocean bottom and an octopus will take up residence.

The only problem with octopus meat is that it tends to rival rubber gasket for delicacy of texture. Sliced thin as sushi, it is often delicious and invariably impenetrable. Boiled up red and peppery in seafood salad, it both looks and feels to the teeth precisely like pencil eraser. I've never eaten chewable common octopus (though some cephalopod relatives, like seppie and calamari, can be buttery-tender. Maybe they just taste better in Italian).

Harold McGee suggests baking octopus for hours in a dry pan and a barely warm oven. Maybe somebody else's oven to start with.

Octopus is wild-caught to this day. Problems in octopod aquaculture resemble those involved in raising eels, another of Schweid's favorite topics. Common octopus won't breed without huge oceanic columns of water to support their larvae, and attempts to replicate those conditions, or to capture and foster the larvae (as can be done with elvers at the "glass-eel" stage) is futile. Huge numbers of octopuses are caught as adults on the west coast of North Africa, processed in the Canary Islands, shipped frozen to Japan, cooked and cut into sushi, and then shipped frozen to Texas for me to eat. No wonder they taste like gaskets.

Like many of the Reaktion Animal books, Octopus contains a wonderful chapter on the iconography and art of its beast. Much of which, parents be warned, is pornographic. You really don't want to do a web search for "tentacle" unless you have at least a "Moderately Safe" filter on. Yet contemporary octopus erotica has a venerable tradition in high Japanese art and its Western modernist emulations. You can stare at Hokusai's Dream of the Fisherman's Wife for quite a while, caught up in its undulations, before you realize that it might not be entirely SFW.

Schweid, Richard. Octopus. London: Reaktion, 2014.