Eating the Alien

Untangling a knotty relationship


Food, fetish or fictional monsters of the deep? Clare Finney untangles our knotty relationship with octopus and squid.


"Eat your pudding Mr Land." Captain Nemo shoots an imperious glance at his captive-come-dinner-guest, who takes a small, cautious spoonful. 

"I ain’t sure it’s pudding," he says, chewing suspiciously. "What is it?"

"It is my own recipe: sauté of unborn octopus," the submarine captain explains, coolly.

When Land, played by a young and dashing Kirk Douglas, spits his ‘pudding’ out in revulsion, he speaks for most viewers of the Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, adapted from Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel. At the time of its release in 1954, the vast majority of Britons and Americans would have baulked at the thought of eating any octopus, unborn or otherwise. Indeed, they would have been more familiar with the idea of a giant squid attacking a submarine – the defining image of the film – than Nemo’s "sea squid dressing".

Jon Ablett, Senior Curator in charge of Mollusca at the Natural History Museum, believes real cephalopod sightings – that’s squid, octopus and cuttlefish ­– had "a huge role to play" in the creation of sea legends. "You have the Kraken in Norway, and the Scylla in Greek mythology. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about the strange habits of squid-like creatures." Though in reality "they would never have attacked ships: any squid or octopus that’s on the surface of the water is likely to be on its last legs, and we’ve yet to record any that are really big enough." The mere sight of the unearthly tentacled creatures would have been more than enough for a sailor’s seasoned imagination. "Washed up on a beach or floating on the ocean, a dead or dying giant squid would have looked truly monstrous," Ablett muses. "It would have lost its shape due to the movement of the ocean, and it would probably have had bites out of it. Coupled with its big beak and giant eyes, I can well see how it got its reputation."

Dinner tables hummed with talk of Jules Verne’s submarine-attacking squid and Victor Hugo’s giant, blood-sucking octopus

For marine biologist and writer Danna Staff, what is so endlessly exciting about cephalopods is how little we still know about them: "the evolutionary relationships between the different groups, the way they use colour and visualise – theories are changing all the time. There are very likely to be new species." Indeed, it’s not impossible that these as yet undiscovered creatures may have inspired some sailors’ cephalopod-based myths. "We know very little about the ocean," says Ablett. "Octopus and squid are very intelligent animals, and it’s possible that they outsmart the nets and traps scientists use to catch specimens for study." When it comes to understanding the world we inhabit, what more sobering reminder of our ignorance is there than the sure presence of an unidentified eight-limbed mollusc? "Even after all these years, I get that slight shiver when I receive a new jarred specimen. It’s fascinating and brilliant, but it is still a bit icky," Ablett confesses, laughing.

This "ick factor", as Ablett calls it, is key to understanding our enduring fascination with all things tentacled. Watch any child in an aquarium and you’ll find them simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the writhing legs, dazzling colours, and smooth, slick suckers pressed against the glass. "With British visitors in particular there is that real ‘ick’ moment," Ablett says. Unaccustomed to the fresh seafood markets which characterise Europe and Asia, this can often be their first encounter with cephalopods away from a restaurant menu. "Yet once they’ve got over that initial disgust, there is often a genuine interest that takes over."

Interest in cephalopods reached fever pitch in the 1870s, with the press diagnosing the nation as being in the grip of "cephalomania" as crowds flocked to Crystal Palace’s new aquarium to see the "wonderful Octopus, or Devil Fish" on display. Dinner tables hummed with talk of Verne’s submarine-attacking squid (his novel came out in 1869) and Victor Hugo’s giant, blood-sucking octopus in Toilers of the Sea. Keen to ride the wave of the public’s morbid curiosity, the aquarium even put model ships inside the tanks for the octopus to play with. One possible visitor to the aquarium was HG Wells, the science fiction author whose work laid the foundation for the genre in the 20th century. Growing up in nearby Bromley, he’d almost certainly have heard of the spectacle; and while there’s no concrete proof, it’s not impossible the "glittering, whiplike tentacles" and "fleshy beaks" that characterise his Martians in The War of the Worlds were inspired at least in part by the Crystal Palace octopus.

Today the parallels between space monsters and monsters of the deep seem fairly obvious: both live in extreme environments about which we know little; both frighten and fascinate with their potential intelligence. There’s even a scientific basis for the comparison: "the fact the octopus, despite being as distant as it is possible to be from us in evolutionary terms, is similar in the way it behaves and learns, and so does give us some reason to think that if another planet had life we might expect to find a mind that was recognisable," philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith explains. HG Wells presaged the connection to aliens with his Martians with "the arms of an octopus" – but it was Ridley Scott and his seminal film Alien that precipitated a real sea change. "Before that, we saw quite humanoid representations of aliens," explains Roger Luckhurst, Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck in London. "With Alien, Scott was trying to produce a new kind of monster: one whose shape, size and lifecycle you couldn’t quite grasp. He dramatised the fear of the ‘other’, and that was very influential."

Scott was a big reader of Wells, and of his American heir HP Lovecraft, who had "a real thing about tentacles," says Luckhurst. "He hated fish and seafood." Indeed, Luckhurst would go so far as to say the appearance of octopus-like creatures in sci-fi, especially in a negative context, "is largely HP Lovecraft’s fault." Living by a port in New York in the 1920s Lovecraft saw not just fish, but immigrants landing, and in his mind ("which was quite pathologically racist," Luckhurst points out dryly) the two became almost inextricable. The cephalopod, like the immigrant, was ‘other’: unfathomable, different and thus evil – something to demonise and quash for the sake of humanity. You’ll find a similar sentiment driving propaganda campaigns around the world. For centuries, cartoonists have used cephalopods’ resonant anatomy – eight tentacles extending from one body, conjuring a striking sense of control and influence – to skewer everything from communism to Standard Oil, Goldman Sachs and global capitalism, not to mention numerous minority groups.

Mercifully, attitudes are changing. While cartoonists will, I suspect, always find the symbolism of their shape irresistible, in popular culture the monster status of cephalopods is ideologically shifting. "Lovecraft is 'Old Weird' – all horror and monstrosity and demonising the ‘other’ – but the genre we’re now seeing in sci fi is 'New Weird': the idea of embracing the ‘other’, and its way of seeing the world," Luckhurt explains. After all, if the whole of science fiction is "premised on an impossibility: that people imagine the ‘other’ in the form of the future or a different culture" then the octopus, with it’s non-binary, eight-limbed, feeling-not-thinking existence, "is the perfect stepping stone to absolute otherness."

The cephalopod, like the immigrant, was ‘other’: unfathomable, different and thus evil – something to demonise and quash for the sake of humanity

He references ‘tentacle erotica’: a subgenre of pornography found in Japan which integrates common porn with tentacled creatures. This is no modern deviancy, but a historic art form dating back to at least the 18th century when Hokusai (perhaps best known for The Great Wave off Kanagawa) made a woodprint of a fisherman’s wife turning to an octopus to satisfy her unfulfilled needs. The ‘New Weird’ school is not octopus porn, but it does "embrace the tentacles as an alternative way of thinking, perhaps in response to ecological crises," Luckhurst says. One famous proponent of New Weird, China Miéville, has written an absurd novel about a squid-worshiping cult which he subversively entitled Kraken. "He is someone who thinks humanity is in a bit of a mess and maybe feeling our way rather than using our rational mind might be a better option." In a world fraught by challenges which seem to defy traditional (read white, masculine, heteronormative) human endeavour, there is a strong sense of needing to revaluate otherness if we’re to avoid destroying ourselves.

This isn’t just about science fiction. The implications of our newfound love for octopus and squid extend well beyond the shelves and film reels. For one thing, renewed public interest in octopus as creatures encourages conservation of their habitat, and enables further research into their intelligence: a quest which, as Peter Godfrey-Smith so beautifully demonstrates in his book Other Minds, can shed light on our own evolution into sentience.  And for another? Well, as the acclaimed Spanish chef José Pizarro succinctly puts it, "when people try octopus for the first time, they’re like ‘this taste is amazing!’" His eyes light up as he describes the Galician octopus growing fat and ruby red on the Bay of Biscay lobsters and mussels. "What a diet," he whistles. "I would love a diet like they have." When Pizarro moved to London 15 years ago, octopus was not popular – but then, neither was Spanish food: "no one understood it." It’s stating the obvious to say our consumption of octopus and squid rose in tandem with our appreciation of the cultures which cooked it – but it’s worth pointing out, in view of attitudes like HP Lovecraft’s. "People get it now. Spanish food is not just paella," says Pizarro – any more than Japanese food is just sushi.

As British people travel and eat out more, they’re becoming more open-minded to new tastes and textures. This growing culinary trend is not without issues. There are, quite rightly, concerns around the killing and eating of such intelligent creatures, not least because of compelling evidence to suggest they experience pain-like feelings. Gone are the days of bashing octopus on rocks to kill and tenderise the flesh or – as is sometimes the practice in Korea and Japan – dressing and eating them while still alive and kicking. In the UK, "octopus have legal protection against maltreatment, and scientists and chefs should account for that," says Staaf. "Nevertheless, the fact remains that cephalopods are one of the most sustainable sources of animal protein."  

"They only live for one to two years, and we tend to catch adults who have already reproduced," says Ablett. "You just need to avoid those caught through deep sea trawling." They aren’t immune to overfishing – indeed, Pizarro has recently struggled to source octopus from Galicia for his restaurants – but as they reproduce quickly, "they are generally more resilient, and more abundant." One interesting commonality between humans and cephlapods, adds Staaf, is how adaptable they are: "they’re adept at finding new ways to live as their environment changes." As cephlapods – "weeds of the sea," as Staaf calls them – proliferate and fill the gap left by their overfished predators, so humans in turn may come to depend on them for their survival. If this means more dishes like the one Pizarro serves me – a curled octopus tentacle, frozen then boiled until tender, grilled a la plancha and served alongside potatoes crushed with paprika and olive oil, topped with pork crackling – well then, count me in. What’s for pudding?