“The thing you have to know about octopus,” he explained, “is that it’s just a mass of muscle. That muscle tissue has to be broken up, tenderized, immediately. Otherwise, rigor mortis sets in and the thing becomes inedible.” He turned the chunks of tentacle on the grill and the lovely smell made my head spin.
We were visiting our favorite island, Syros, for the weekend. Early that morning we had rented scooters from a bearded fellow with perfect English, working out of a little tent set up along the harbor. We had spent the day cruising the island, visiting its several tiny villages, catching insects in our eyes, noses and mouths. Returning to our pension in the main town of Ermoupoli in the afternoon, we had headed down the eroded stone steps along the sea wall, along the stepping stones at the bottom, to an isolated concrete slab tucked into a corner of the wall. We thought of this as our own private concrete beach. There were a few lounge chairs there, maybe an umbrella or two, and a metal-shack snack shop against the wall which we had never seen open for business. Turns out, we had just never stayed there late enough.
Some time in the late afternoon, who should show up to open the snack bar but the very same fellow from whom we had rented the scooters. I don’t remember his name, but it was probably Stephano or Spirou. He swung the whole front of the snack shop up to form a canopy. He pulled out more chairs, tables and umbrellas. He served soft drinks, beer and the local (awful) wine to the small but growing collection of tourists and locals.
And then came the octopus.
Back along the stepping-stones, there was some commotion. A few boys, young teens, were flailing about in the shallows. One carried a small harpoon; the others were manhandling a very large octopus. It was at least mostly dead, but as we all know, mostly dead means slightly alive, and a large octopus, even slightly alive, is a fearsome force to be reckoned with. The biggest boy, maybe 13 years old and wearing only a swim suit, grabbed the animal by the ends of its two longest tentacles (they come in pairs of varying lengths, you know) and jerked the thing into the air. He swung it over his head and *SMACK* slapped it against a stone. Then “Yoiks! and away!” over his head it flew again, and *SMACK* against the sea wall. That poor cephalopod was subjected to his final indignity, his baggy body and six unfettered tentacles waving wildy to and fro, *SMACK* *SMACK* *SMACK*ing with every fling.
While this was going on, Spirou (or Stephano) was setting up a grill.
As soon as the kids were sure the beast was completely dead, they sold it to Stephano (or Spirou).
A couple of hours later, as the octo-chunks formed a golden glaze of fat and marinade, Spirou/Stephano explained to me about the tenderizing routine.
The sun set behind us; the sea and sky were each their appointed shades of Perfect Blue. The air cooled, and Stephano/Spirou served us our sizzling-hot chunks of the most fabulous piece of seafood since the North Sea prawns.
It seems the creepier the creature, the better the barbecue.
That was when I lived in Greece, when you’re never more than 1,000 yards from a live octopus. Now I live in Chicago, where I’m never less than 1,000 miles from any live seafood. Sometimes I dare try the Octopus Salad at a decent restaurant in Greektown, but obviously it’s never the same. For one thing, only tiny little octopi make it into the North American market; and for another, I’m sure no one in the kitchen was beating the tar out of the still-wiggling beastie just before tossing it on the grill.
What’s the best octopus you’ve ever had?