Our kitchen in Woods Hole was attached to a big yellow pine porch, from which, on humid summertime nights, you could hear the peepers chirping and watch the moon encompassed by a circle of swamp-like treetops. Inside our kitchen, after dinner, I would sit watching the smoke from my father’s cigarettes float upwards toward the light fixtures. My mother would ask him for a smoke, and to this he would reluctantly oblige as he ashed into the shell of a conch or surf clam or other large molluscan ashtray convert we had lying around.
From May to August, whenever he was inshore, it was like clockwork each night after dinner. He would torture our Jack Russell terrier for a couple of minutes and then stand up and announce that he was going to chase the growing faction of night-time Asian squid-jiggers from the deck of his commercial fishing boat, the F/V Nobska. “God damn ink all over the place! It’s a god damned mess down there!” he would hoot, starting up the engine of his jungle-green GMC truck and taking off down Nobska Road into the sultry sounds of the night.
These were my childhood introductions to the “common squid”, my beloved Loligo pealei, my favorite cephalopod in the sea. Cephalopod means literally “head-foot” in Latin, which alludes to the fact that octopi, nautilus, cuttlefish and squid are mainly just big heads attached to their feet. Point Judith squid, Woods Hole squid, Falmouth squid, Nantucket squid, whatever you call this local long-finned variety, it is, in my opinion, the best tasting variety. Yet all of those nights growing up I don’t ever remember ever once eating squid for dinner.
A global industry has been built on the processing, freezing and repacking of this delicious, short-living and prolific species of squid. Squid is a humble creature, a baitfish, but a jewel of Mother Nature’s creation. The large vivid eyes, sharply tuned for seeing well in both the light and the dark, camouflage skin that turns colors when the squid is alive, when it’s dying and, most importantly for the consumer, after it’s dead. The skin of the squid is one of the best indicators of its freshness. Once you see that the skin is turning from a darker purple to a fluorescent pink color it is time to retire it as bait.
It is Loligo pealei that gets frozen and shipped to China to be cleaned and “treated” with “light” chemicals and then re-frozen and re-shipped back across the globe to be consumed “locally.” A friend in the frozen squid business was telling me that many of his frozen squid customers demand an “American-caught squid product”, as opposed to, for example, a Peruvian-caught product. We began to wonder if they realized that this American-caught squid was in fact being processed in China. Furthermore, considering the sporadic landings of squid and the consistent demand for fried calamari in coastal restaurants, we have to wonder how local our squid really is.
Loligo pealei squid is caught by trawl nets in New England. The winter squid fishery can happen off shore, if there is anything around. The inshore season will hit in the spring, summer and fall months. Two winters ago was a very prolific offshore squid season, especially for the fleet of Point Judith Rhode Island, the rustic fishing community just south of Cape Cod, famous for its squid. This year was the complete opposite. I saw approximately one box of squid come through the entire port each day all winter. There was cod, yellowtail, fluke, even black sea bass, but no squid. Squid is elusive.
As I understand it, from local word of mouth, the New England brood of Loligo pealei swim up towards the Nantucket Sound, starting from Woods Hole, typically from just about April 20th heading into May. The commercial fishery is strong during this time period and will follow the animals up into the Channel and around the island of Tuckernuck. Once the squid make this loop they spawn, and the babies float up along the beach areas of Nantucket. When landings show the squid size diminishing to a very small length, the government closes the fishery down to protect the new population.
Globally, various species of squid range in size from fairy squid, the tiny bite-sized squids the size of a mere human fingernail typically consumed in Spain (called Txipirones there), to the giant Humboldt squids whose tubes can be larger than a human, and in some cases even bigger than a car!
Last year residents of Maine were gastronomically delighted to find that the Loligo pealei had in fact become something of a local commercial fishery. Epicures rejoiced as Maine-caught tender tubes and tentacles sizzled on their grills for the first time. Nobody was targeting the species previously but some of the more progressive fish houses up there started a market for the product, selling to some of the more adventurous local chefs. Things seem to be working out well. According to the article “A New Fishery in Maine” from The Working Waterfront, some of these restaurants are selling up to 30 pounds of fresh squid per day, when it is available. I also found it interesting to learn that many of the fishermen who have been turned on to this “new” fishery are using some of the most rustic techniques available: hand-jigging the squids with hook and line, using battery-powered flashlights to attract the ghostly creatures by the light of the moon. The author of the article called the fishermen “the ultimate entrepreneurs”, making their money with little more than a piece of twine and a hook.
Much of the Loligo pealei squid that comes from New England is caught at one time. My local squid business expert knows about this. He says that most of the squid he is selling now was from last winter’s harvest. He says the price of the large frozen squid is so high right now that he isn’t even making money on it. This price increase is due to the lack of landings this past winter.
The best squid is harvested during the colder months. When the water gets too warm, during midsummer, the squid literally cooks before it is caught and then sometimes it cooks on deck a little more while it waits to be iced down in the hold. This causes a darker-looking skin and a tougher meat, and this cooked-on-board squid is not the most highly valued, as you can imagine. Whenever I encounter it in the supply chain I have to turn it down—that quality is not something that my customers would ever accept.
Sexual dimorphism is observed in Loligo pealei. Like the peacock and the orangutan, male squids are larger and more aggressive than their female counterparts. I recently watched a video of squids laying eggs that I found to be quite magical. The female squid holds a little egg sack in her dainty arms and pumps it full of tiny eggs. Then she propels herself and her little bundle through the water toward a nest of eggs that she has been tying together down at the base of some beach grass. The eggs float delicately in the waves each time she ties up a new bundle. The whole time her skin is flashing brown and yellow like the sand and the rings around her eyes are bright green, keeping a watchful lookout for predators who might thwart her natural instincts to keep squid populations alive forever.
I have seen a variety of species of delicious baby fish inside the tubes of freshly captured Loligo pealei squid. Baby porgies, whiting, black sea bass and even cannibalism has been observed in squid at the Gabe the Fish Babe warehouse. Squid have a radula and a hard beak. When you want to clean a “dirty” squid you make a cut just below the eyeballs and squeeze the hard beak out from the tentacles. Then you slip your fingers up the side of the inner tube and grab the “pen” or cartilaginous backbone that holds the squid ink, and remove it in one smooth pull. Guts and entrails should follow. Peel the skin off like a banana (or leave it on) and voila! Dinner.
Voracious squidavores needn’t be too hard on themselves; Loligo pealei, like other cephalopods, have a wicked short life span (less than two years, dying soon after they spawn) so you can devour them ravenously and sustainably. They are troops on a mission; within their short couple of years on Earth they can migrate all the way from Newfoundland to Florida and back, as long as they don’t get eaten along the way by a larger fish or carnivorous marine mammal such as a seagull or dolphin.
I asked local distributor of Cape Cod, let’s call him Bob, who catches squid, why the squid weren’t around this year. He assured me that they were but they just weren’t catching them. He said maybe the schools of squid were higher up or lower down than the depth of the nets that were being trawled to catch them. When I tried getting him to delve deeper into the reasoning behind the lack of winter squid landings this year he just smiled and muttered “Now that’s philosophical.”
People tend to emote when they wax on about the squid. Bait talk in general seems to have an effect on the sensitive-type fish folk. One weekend afternoon earlier this year, my dear friend Mike, fisherman and monger of high-end pelagics from New Bedford, was showing me his collection of inscribed swordfish bills. More than a few them were dedicated to the squids that lost their lives to catch the big fish. On one beautiful bill, the artist honored the squid that caught the 600-pound swordfish. “Now that’s a sustainable harvest,” declared Mike as he admired his bill. “THANK YOU squid.”
When I asked him recently to talk more squid, he had no problem giving me a few important pieces of squid-formation. “Let’s not forget they are a regal creature that helps so many small obscure communities. Certain communities depend on the mightiest cephalopod to survive, as in a way of life. Yes, squid may be a global commodity that keeps big business moving, but it is humble too. It has always been there for the little guy to get by on. God bless the mighty squid.” And then, like a good swordfisherman, he added, “Protect bait, not predators…Think about it. This ain’t a who came first scenario.” I haven’t been able to wrap my brain fully around that one yet. It might only make sense to a man who spent half of his life at sea using squid to trap his huge beasts of prey.
My mother always told me that she thought cephalopods could feel emotions like embarrassment and happiness. She loved octopi and squid. Maybe that’s why she never cooked them for us to eat. Nowadays a truly fresh squid, simply prepared, is one of my favorite seafoods. Get back to bait, bust out the grill this spring and pay homage to the humble squid.