The Octopus

(I)

About ten years ago I was a vegetarian, but in my childhood I had occasionally relished a chicken leg piece. In between my childhood and my puberty few familial changes nudged the family towards vegetarianism. Since most of my eating happened at home which consisted of lentils and vegetables, I soon forgot about meat.

I continued to be a vegetarian in college and might have insisted that it was my choice to be a vegetarian, I might have also argued about it being ethical to be so. Then at some point I was drunk enough to chomp on a leg piece of chicken after about twenty years of absence and there was no going back. It was also much needed rebellion at twenty three, but I remained a reluctant meat eater, sticking to chicken and shying away from anything new or not smothered in flavorful gravy.

Then I met my husband who is a voracious meat eater. From him I learnt to eat fish and not be scared of the bones that might get stuck in your throat. On my first visit to Calcutta to his childhood home, I was treated to three different kinds of fish in my first meal, which lasted for an hour. I used both my hands to carefully pick away the bones while the maashi at his house looked at me amused.

By this time I had forgotten my arguments for vegetarianism and my mind was just boggled by the amount of food choices and new experiences available in the world of meat. I became more accepting and more adventurous about what I eat, on a recent trip to south-east Asia, I tried crocodile and frog meat and found that it is easy to forget live animals when they are served cut up and seasoned on a plate.

But in one’s own kitchen, it is difficult to forget the deadness or the liveness of the animal that you’ve bought cut up and are washing for dinner. At times while looking at the pieces of chicken I have wondered which body part they used to be, and once when while frying fish, the eye in its head sputtered out of the pan, I ran out of the kitchen screaming and cringing.

(II)

So last week when my husband excitedly called me from the fish shop and told me that he had bought octopus, I immediately imagined the live unwieldy arms of the animal and screeched, “What? Who is going to cook it?”, I was told that it had been cleaned and cut up already, so what came to my kitchen were white, jelly like rings, with little semblance to what I had imagined.

It was a baby octopus, the meat was tender, needed about five minutes of boiling with vinegar and then a stir fry, the Chinese way, with onions, peppers and the requisite sauces. Half of the octopus was cooked that way, the other half was kept in the freezer, by day after I had understood the meat and the flavours that would compliment it, so the day after I made a light octopus and potato salad in a dressing of olive oil, parsley and lemon.

Co-incidentally a few days before this cooking adventure, I had read the tale of the philosopher Diogenes and the octopus. Plutarch reports that Diogenes the cynic, ventured to eat raw octopus in order to put an end to the inconvenience of preparing cooked food. Diogenes, the lover of berries and olives and the drinker of spring water, believed that the problems of mankind emerged from feasts and wine. He believed that nature provides enough for man/woman to be nourished and that all of us are part of a cycle of consumption- fruit, vegetable, beast, human.

As he ate raw octopus in front of a number of people, with his head veiled, he told them that he was risking his life for them. He died soon after this alimentary transgression. He had insisted though that after death, he should be left as carrion for animals, that he should not be buried or cremated but should be meat, so that the cycle of consumption is complete.

**The tale of Diogenes has been gleaned from the book “Appetites for Thought” by Michel Onfray.