Editors' Choice

I Came, I Cooked, I Conquered

by Suzanne LaFetra

Julia Child has said, "Once you have sautéed meat, it becomes second nature. It just becomes part of you." Suzanne LaFetra tries to follow her lead.

Even though we couldn’t get The Food Channel, I learned a lot during the four years I lived in a house topped with palm fronds. I learned that boa constrictors really like sausage. I learned that ants—a river of them four feet wide—can sweep through your kitchen and leave it scoured and crumb-less. My neighbors just shrugged: Of course the ants come out during the rainy season. Sí, claro, you should always have a machete handy in case the snakes come sniffing around for scraps. Sometimes, things got so bizarre, I felt like an ET who’d crash-landed in a steamy, sultry tropical beach town with no way to phone home.

Fifteen years ago, I lived in Tulum, a shy Mexican fishing village, still hidden from the throngs of tourists visiting its glitzy northern sister, Cancun, eighty miles away. The town’s butcher shop was painted sea blue, and advertised its purpose with a pig sporting a poofy chef’s hat and clutching a meat cleaver, trotting after a smaller, presumably more succulent relative. The stench in the tropical heat was so intense I couldn’t stand to shop there, even for my dogs.

So I learned to do my grocery shopping in the ocean. Usually I could persuade a sturdy boatman to sell his bounty to me, pre-cleaned, scaled, skinned, and filleted, paying a little extra to avoid the yucky task of transforming a flopping silver creature into something I could sizzle up in a frying pan. Occasionally my fisherman neighbor, Diablo, would offer to share his catch with me, complete with eyes, guts, bones, and tail. I often had little idea of what to do with these presents, and I was really stumped when he pulled an octopus (pulpo in Spanish) purple and sliming from the depths of a dripping burlap sack. Para ti," he grinned. It looked like something from another planet. "Oh, thanks," I said, trying to look grateful. Diablo could have sold it in town for a pretty peso to someone who actually wanted it. To refuse his gift would have been insulting; and it just wouldn’t be neighborly—mi pulpo es su pulpo.

His wife Ceci yanked a second pulpo from the bag, and eyed it eagerly, turning it over in her hands, surveying it as I might have done with a flawless cantaloupe. "Perfecto," she declared, and planted a kiss onto Diablo’s sunburned cheek. She turned to me, "Do you like ceviche de pulpo?" Ceci had been friendly with me from the start, but had become suddenly suspicious of my culinary tastes one afternoon when I had impulsively thrust a bunch of freshly harvested basil under her nose. "Isn’t it wonderful?" I gushed. I was thrilled with my little crop, as it was impossible to buy any in the area. I learned why when she wriggled up her face in horror "Ay," she turned away, "but that’s only for the cemetery." I didn’t invite her over for caprese sandwiches that night.

Ceviche is a zippy, refreshing version of our boring ketchupy shrimp cocktail, but in Mexico, you make it with all kinds of sea creatures, pulpo being a favorite. I did love ceviche, but I hadn’t considered what to do with the octopus, so mesmerized was I, watching Diablo expertly perform a rather brutal looking autopsy on the two octopi he had caught. Actually, ceviche sounded perfect: cool and simple, precisely the opposite of what I was feeling.

"I’ll de-brain it for you, Susi," Diablo said casually. "Gracias," I said in a very small voice. One more dexterous twist of his knife, and I saw a golf ball-sized gray mass plop to the jungle floor. The next thing I knew, he was passing me my pulpo. I reluctantly reached out with both hands, wondering just how to hold on to the slippery gift. "No, asi," he said, "hold it here." He had two fingers hooked underneath a flap of skin (the head?) so it wouldn’t slither away. I crooked my fingers too, and a moment later was transporting an octopus across the yard.

Alone in the kitchen, I laid the jelly-like thing in the sink. It didn’t even look like an octopus. It was long and limp and a translucent pale pink, like a wet ballerina costume. It definitely did not look like the neat little purple rectangle that I had eaten at sushi bars. Where to begin? Not even The Joy of Cooking, which chronicles how to kill and pluck a chicken, could help me out with this eight-legged wave dweller.

I picked it up again, using my front two fingers "a la Diablo" and while inspecting it, I noticed something. Something awful. In spite of the fact that my neighbor had kindly done me the favor of ripping the poor thing’s brain out (thus leaving the handy finger hold) the creature still seemed to be ALIVE. I watched with horror as some sort of fluid (do octopi have blood?!) pulsated under the skin. Disgusted, I flung it back into the sink, and was just about to race to the beach and hurl the monster back into the sea when Ceci chirped over the wall, "Oye, Suzanne, make sure you pound it real good, so it won’t get tough when you boil it." Ah, a clue. Pounding. Boiling. I now had a starting place.

First, I thought, I should rinse off the goo. I held it under the cold water, and tried to push the slime down its body, like working the shampoo out of a long braid. After a minute or two in the rinse cycle the creature still seemed to be producing slime. I kept squeezing, wringing, and rinsing, but eventually gave up and resigned myself to a slippery meal. Since I didn’t know what else to do, I decided it was time to move on to the "boil" part, remembering of course to "pound it real good" first.

I glanced around my sparse kitchen, seeing two pots, one big knife, and a rusty cheese grater. I didn’t have a garlic press, let alone an octopus pounder. I considered my toolbox—a hammer? This seemed just a teensy bit too much like second-degree murder, so instead I opted for that ubiquitous Mexican tool, the Coke bottle. Several weeks past, I had watched, delighted, as a resourceful beach colleague adeptly mashed potatoes with one.

I gripped the bottle firmly by the neck, whacked dinner once, and was immediately showered with goo. Slime flew everywhere. I longed for a pre-wrapped spinach and feta salad to drop from the sky.

My ego, however, was determined not to let common sense prevail, so I continued savagely "tenderizing" my eight-legged foe. If there had been any non-rusted metal in my kitchen, I might have seen the reflection of a psycho bringing a weapon down again and again, spattering and staining the walls with each thwack. I considered asking my neighbors exactly how they managed to create a desirable meal out of such a messy mollusk, but then of course I’d have to admit that a) I was an inept foreigner who definitely did not belong in their beachy paradise and b) like so many Conquistadors before me, I had taken their gracious offering and turned it into something grotesque.

Finally, slimy, disgusted, and decidedly un-hungry, I stopped the madness and plunked my pulpo into a simmering pot of water. I peered in and half expected the thing to crawl, B-movie like, tentacle over tentacle out of its watery inferno. I clapped on a lid and cranked up the heat. At last, I had tamed the beast. And I needed a beer.

I pulled a chair up near the stove, sipped a cold Bohemia, and watched the pot. Eventually the part of my brain that controls the higher, less animal, functions was jump- started, and I began to prepare the other ingredients for the ceviche. I sliced white onions, squeezed limes, and pulled delicate cilantro leaves from their stems. Handling this vegan portion of the meal made me feel calmer, but I began to sweat when I noticed a purplish foam bubble up from under the pot lid.

How can you tell when an octopus is "done"—wiggle the drumstick? I lifted off the top, and gingerly looked inside. What was now in the scummy water bore no resemblance to the creature I had started with—this pulpo was a hard, curled, knob, half its original size, and reddish purple, just like the rubber chew toy my dogs squeaked off with. I speared it with a fork and lifted it, dripping, onto my cutting board, where it would suffer the final indignity in its transformation to supper.

Wielding my weapon, I paused with the knife—Do you cut off the tentacles? And what about those alien little suction cups? How should you handle the head? I settled on chopping the whole thing into half inch pieces, except for the beak (BEAK!?) which I quickly brushed into the garbage. Then, I scooped the whole mess into my waiting bowl of onions et al. A stir, more salt, another squirt of lime, and then at last I pushed the whole thing gratefully out of sight into the dark of the refrigerator.

The dirty deed done, I surveyed the scene of the crime, and began to scrub my hands, the sink, and even the walls, Lady Macbeth-like, attempting to remove all traces of my murderous cooking. After I had cleaned up both the kitchen and myself, I cracked open a second beer, and felt better. I went into my backyard, admired my pelt of fresh soft grass successfully taking root over the rocks. I smiled at my prolific vegetable garden, teeming with sunburst squash, eggplants, tomatoes, and of course the slandered basil. I felt less out of place, seeing the ways I had in fact bent the savage jungle to fit my civilized desires for pesto and veggie quiche. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the ceviche. The very thought of ingesting that multi-tentacled creature was enough to send me scampering to the farmácia for Pepto Bismol.

The birds in the tulipan tree started up their evening clatter, the jungle equivalent of the Quittin’ Time bell. My boyfriend Federico showed up, strode through the kitchen and opened the fridge, reaching in for a Coke. He rolled the icy bottle along his sweaty forehead and paused in the cool of the box, surveying its contents. "Oh hey," he said hungrily, "Pulpo ceviche. I didn’t know you could make that."

He served himself a big plateful of pulpo, while I puttered around in the garden, sprinkling water on the baby eggplants. "Come here, amor, this is fantastico," he shouted toward the porch. I walked back inside, and he snaked an arm around my waist, scooping up the purpley chunks with fresh tortilla triangles. "Now THIS is comida auténtica." he heaped the praise on me higher than the ceviche topping his chip. "It’s so much better than that basil pasta you made last night. You’re practically a native Tulumeña, now." He punctuated his enthusiasm with a friendly whack on my ex-pat buns.

I wanted to be able to celebrate my victory over the pulpo and bask in his culinary compliments. But I didn’t feel auténtica, I felt like an alien. I couldn’t take a single bite of the ceviche. I couldn’t even stand to watch Federico eat it. I went back outside and climbed into the hammock, and swatted at the mosquitoes who were enjoying their carnivorous dinner. The brightest of the stars were beginning to come out as the brief tropical sunset quickly faded to indigo. I could see Venus that evening, while I listened to my boyfriend devour the meal I had made.


***


Recipe for Octopus Ceviche—Ceviche de Pulpo

You’ll need:

* 1 octopus
* a helpful neighbor
* a sturdy enough ego to admit when you’re clueless
* a Coke bottle
* a body length rain slicker and face protection
* onions
* tomatoes
* cilantro
* limes
* serrano chiles
* salt

Pound and boil your de-brained octopus. Combine with the last 6 items and refrigerate. Serve with tortilla chips and enough beer to eradicate all memories of your cooking horrors.


Suzanne LaFetra lives with her husband and two children in Berkeley, California, and they never, ever, have octopus for dinner.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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