The Mysteries of the Giant Pacific Octopus
Buster is feeling shy, as usual. Buster is so acutely shy that researchers at the Seattle Aquarium can't tell whether this giant Pacific octopus is a boy or a girl. If Buster is a boy, he'll have a special tentacle (the third to the right, going clockwise, from the front of its mantle) that is both an arm and a dick. And, since the suction cups on octopuses* also function as taste buds, his special tentacle will be an arm and a dick and a tongue—making all octopus sex fisting and intercourse and cunnilingus, simultaneously. The young blonde giving the "feeding demonstration" to a large pack of squirming schoolchildren explains these facts more delicately.
"What if you tasted everything you touched?" she asks. The children are silent. "When you open the bathroom door? When you tie your shoes?" The kids offer a few ewws to her and each other. An assistant perched on top of Buster's tank, her feet dangling above the water, skewers some oily herring onto a spear. While the assistant submerges and gently jiggles the herring in front of Buster's cave (the only things visible are an eye and an indistinct bulge of octopus flesh), the guide gives her spiel about octopuses—how the only bony part of their body is a beak, allowing them to squeeze into small places; how octopuses have three hearts in their mantles; how they squirt ink at predators to disorient them; how they are masters of disguise. They have three sets of camouflage cells that can mimic almost any pattern behind them—a checkerboard, multicolored coral, the moving shadow of a passing cloud—and they can flatten and pucker the texture of their skin to blend into most surfaces. (Compared to octopuses, chameleons are pikers.) Despite the vast palette of their skins, octopuses are colorblind.
"Until they're full grown, octopuses are the cupcakes of the sea—everybody likes to eat them," the guide says. Buster shifts a little, sensing the herring. "If you see his special tentacle, let us know," the guide tells the children hopefully. Buster reaches out with an unspecial tentacle, grabs the fish, and tucks it discreetly under his body to eat. The children lean forward, mesmerized, quiet. The mystery of Buster's genitals abides.
Some aquariums will pay $1,000 for a giant Pacific octopus—they're big, they're weird, and kids love them. (Henry Lee, a 19th-century naturalist at the Brighton Aquarium, once wrote that "an aquarium without an octopus was like a plum-pudding without plums.") If Buster doesn't shape up and get over his stage fright, says aquarium employee Giovannina Souers, they might have to send him back. Which isn't as big a headache for the Seattle Aquarium as it is for other aquariums, because Puget Sound is home to the biggest octopuses in the world.
The aquarium dives for its own octopuses and sometimes sells them to other aquariums as far away as Sweden. (One of the four Scandinavia-bound animals died in the plane because its flight had been delayed.) Washington State allows divers to harvest one giant octopus per day anywhere besides Hood Canal. Divers will locate an octopus den and squirt in a noxious chemical to disorient and dislodge the animal. Copper sulfate and chlorine bleach were favorites but have been banned because they killed nearby sea life. Clove oil, Souers says, is the new favorite. The aquarium sometimes gets donations—an out-of-town angler once gave the aquarium a 26-pound octopus he accidentally caught while fishing from his window at the Edgewater Hotel.
Buster's tank, the guide tells the schoolchildren, sits on top of a rock outcropping with an underwater octopus den. After watching Buster's coy performance, you could, in theory, jump out the window, swim to the bottom, and wrestle another one out of a cave.
Not that you'd want to. Giant Pacific octopuses are, well, giant—the largest ever found, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was 600 pounds and 31 feet from tentacle to tentacle—and they're disproportionately strong, all muscle and protein. While trying to escape, a 40-pound octopus at the Seattle Aquarium once pushed a 60-pound weight from the top of its tank. They have venom for drool and their mouths look like something from Alien: two sharp beaks hiding a drill-like instrument called a radula that scrapes through thick shells to paralyze whatever's inside before the octopus sucks out its innards.
And sometimes they attack divers. A 2007 article from the Canadian Field-Naturalist described several attacks: One octopus off San Juan Island grabbed a diver's legs and held him underwater while he struggled, long enough that the diver used up most of the air in his tank and nearly died—as if the octopus knew that divers have only a certain amount of breathing time. Another octopus in Washington waters pounced on a diver, flaring its tentacles in a hunting gesture. The diver fended it off and swam away, but the octopus followed, crawling toward him on the ocean floor, and pounced again. Luckily, this octopus was small—but bizarrely aggressive for its size.
Off Vancouver Island, an underwater film crew swam off, leaving one diver near an unseen octopus den. An octopus crawled out, anchored itself with two tentacles to the rocks below, and wrapped the other six around the diver's face and chest. It ripped off the diver's mask, reached for his breathing regulator, and tried to pull him into its lair:
The diver eventually outlasted the octopus but in the struggle lost his mask and had his hood pulled partially off and had his dry suit flooded. As might be expected, he also used up a significant amount of his breathing gas. The octopus finally gave up on this test of strength and let go. The diver felt that, had he lost his regulator or had he been low on air, he would have undoubtedly died. The octopus was just too strong for him to do anything but hang on to his regulator and brace himself from being pulled into the den...
So far, we can document no case of Giant Pacific Octopus attack that has resulted in a diver fatality, but there have been diver deaths where no cause is found to explain the tragedy. Perhaps octopuses were involved in these deaths, but even if they were not, it is wise for all divers to be respectful of the potential danger of these powerful animals.
In 1940, two years after he opened the Seattle Aquarium on Pier 54, Ivar Haglund staged an underwater wrestling match between a giant octopus and an old prizefighter named Two Ton Tony. Haglund and the octopus's "trainers" shook its limbs furiously while Two Ton Tony grimaced and grunted. Tony won, but the fight was a lie—the octopus was dead before the match began.
The author of the octopus-attack article, Dr. Roland Anderson, retired this March after 31 years at the Seattle Aquarium. The man loves octopuses and knows more about cephalopod behavior than most people in the world. The other day, he arrived at the 14 Carrot Cafe, just a few blocks from his Eastlake apartment, wearing an octopus baseball cap and an octopus T-shirt, and carrying a bag (emblazoned with an octopus) full of gifts he's gotten recently: a squid egg beater, a squid soap dispenser, a glittery octopus Christmas ornament. "I'm not sick of octopuses yet," he said, smiling wanly. "I am a little tired of octopus trink."
Dr. Anderson has written 241 articles, both scholarly and popular, about cephalopods, but says he still knows precious little about the giant Pacific octopus. If anyone knew how many live in Puget Sound it would be him, but he doesn't know and isn't willing to guess. "We know how many killer whales there are," he says. "We have estimates for salmon. There's an annual sea-otter census. But nobody really looks for octopuses besides me."
For the past 10 years, Dr. Anderson has run octopus surveys during President's Day weekend, asking recreational divers to report sightings. Typically, 200 divers participate and report around 70 octopuses, but that doesn't mean much. Puget Sound is too big, cold, dark, and deep for a comprehensive census—some of its depths haven't even been mapped yet. Researchers could chemically estimate the giant-octopus population by taking biopsies for DNA analysis. (By comparing variations in genetic samples from different animals, scientists can get a sense of the population size.) Anderson says the Seattle Aquarium is getting "close" to nailing down a method but isn't quite ready yet. "It takes time and money to figure out the genetic markers," he says. "And we're already dealing with staff furloughs because of the city budget crisis."
Similar DNA analysis is used to estimate the population size of six-gill sharks, another gigantic, mysterious, primitive creature from Puget Sound's depths (and a predator of octopuses). Six-gill sharks live all over the world, from East Africa to Puget Sound, but scientists know very little about them except that they're huge—around 16 feet long. The Seattle Aquarium is unusually well situated to study the giant sharks because Puget Sound is deep, narrow, and steep. At night, the sharks ascend to the shallows to feed, right up to the pilings under Pier 54 where, every few months, aquarium divers set up cameras, bait traps, and wait in a cage to take biopsy samples.
One recent weekday in the bowels of the aquarium, among pipes and tanks and thrumming water pumps, six-gill researchers sat around a table, reviewing their dive plan. "When's splash time?" one asked. "As long as we're down there, might as well do a kelp harvest," another offered. "Let's get the bags and suit up." In most other six-gill habitats, researchers have to catch the sharks, hauling them up to the surface with rod and reel, to tag and biopsy the animals. "They seem to recover all right," says Souers, the aquarium staff member. "But the less invasive the technique, the better."
In Seattle, researchers buy fish parts from Pike Place Market, saving one set until it's rancid enough to set in a bait trap and freezing another set into "chumsicles"—giant iced lollipops anchored to the floor of Puget Sound. The rancid fish attract the sharks, but the sharks prefer to chew on the chumsicles. The researchers don't understand why. Once the divers have set the bait, they surface and wait. Researchers watch video monitors for several hours. If they see sharks, the divers go back down to take biopsies and implant tags. But the sharks haven't been showing up for the past few months, since the pier has been reconstructed. The researchers think something about the new pilings or diver cage is scaring them away.
No sharks show up that night, though ratfish swarm the bait. "We're jaded to see ratfish," says one researcher. "But it's actually pretty rare. They typically live at incredible depths." The tallest building in Seattle is 930 feet; the deepest trough in Puget Sound is 937 feet—just north of the city. The bright, people-filled skyscrapers of Seattle are reflected in a dark, creature-filled world next door.
During the year after college I spent teaching in Japan, one of my students' favorite games was Let's See What the Foreigner Will Eat. They couldn't stop taking me to restaurants, ordering dishes they thought I would think were gross, and gleefully watching as I chewed raw horse, fish heads, cod sperm, spaghetti omelets, otoko kaoru ("man-smell") chewing gum, and the snottier side of Japanese cuisine (raw sea urchins, fermented soybeans).
The rules were simple: If I could eat it with a smile, I won. If I grimaced, I was weak. The game was a complicated mix of cultural diplomacy, table etiquette, and sadomasochism. They politely applauded my successes but savored my failures, clucking and laughing. I had won every round so far except for the slimy natto—fermented soybeans. They look like deer poop, smell like rot, and taste like something from the bottom of a porta-potty doused in soy sauce. I lost that round the last time we all went out drinking. I was determined to win this one.
We were in a nice restaurant near Osaka, in a private upstairs room with dark cedar paneling. I was sitting with my legs crossed on a tatami-mat floor while 20 Japanese adults eagerly studied my expression as a mouthful of raw, writhing octopus tentacle attacked my cheeks and tongue. That tentacle had been attached to a living octopus only minutes ago, finely chopped, and set before me in what looked like a bowl of pale, squirming worm parts. Its suckers flexed spastically as I chewed, trying to hurt me as much as I was hurting it.
The battle was protracted and painful. Of all the faces staring at me, I remember Dr. Booka's the best. He liked talking about Greek philosophers and looked like an old-timey doctor from a Meiji-era photo: round wire glasses, clipped mustache, button-up shirt. I chewed stoically, using my tongue to pry away the needling suckers. I swallowed. Dr. Booka smiled. "Mmm, sugoi," he grunted. "Very good."
Dr. Booka later said that this stunt dish originated in Korea (cheaters!), but Japan has its own deeply kinky relationship with octopuses (tako is their word for them, which also means "kite" and "callus"). Japanese octopus erotica has a long and venerable history. Hokusai, Japan's most famous wood-block artist, made the iconic Tako to Ama (translated as Octopus and Diver, also called The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife) in 1814: It depicts two octopuses wrapped around a naked woman reclining on some ocean rocks. The smaller octopus kisses her mouth and curls its tentacles around her nipples while the larger octopus nuzzles between her legs, its mantle pulled back, its eyes bulging. Scholars think the woman is a mythic abalone diver and the sex is consensual, but later octopus porn took a turn for the violent.
Japanese censorship laws prohibit depictions of the penis—though old Hokusai-era porn featured enormous cocks that looked like gnarled tree trunks—which explains why so much Japanese porn involves penetration with everything else. One scrap of manga porn I found floating under a bridge in the small town where I was living (honest) depicted one schoolgirl stuffing another with the contents of her pencil box. In lieu of pencils and Sharpies, manga cartoonist Toshio Maeda started drawing violent tentacle porn. Maeda's Demon Beast Invasion was the beginning of the modern tentacle-rape (shokushu goukan) genre: A race of nasty creatures invades Earth and impregnates as many human women as possible. (In 1999, a comic-store clerk in Dallas was convicted of "promoting obscenity" and fined $4,000 for selling a copy of Demon Beast Invasion to an undercover cop. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.) In an interview on a manga blog, Maeda said he wanted "Tentacle Master" inscribed on his tombstone. A Google search for "tentacle rape" turns up 163,000 hits. Plain old "tentacle porn" only turns up 96,600.
The real sex life of an octopus is sufficiently tragic without Maeda's help. A giant Pacific octopus has sex only once, then loses its mind and dies. The sex itself is dull. Octopuses tire easily—their blood isn't so good at carrying oxygen—so the athletics are minimal. Using his special tentacle, the male extrudes a meter-long sperm packet (it looks like a milky worm) out of a special sac in his body/head and into the female's body/head. If the female doesn't like it, she'll push him and his sperm packet away and look for someone else. If the female likes it, the two might entwine in dispassionate embrace for three hours or more.
Then the bad times come. "It's called senescence," says Dr. Anderson. "And it's similar to human dementia. Males go crazy, stop eating, rove around aimlessly, not being careful. It's hormones—females go into senescence, too. My father had Alzheimer's, and I'm sorry to say he wandered off a time or two and it didn't make a lot of sense what he was wandering off for. Octopuses are the same way." Unlike humans with dementia, senescent octopuses sometimes chew off their own arms.
Their immune systems also shut down, allowing the small lacerations they accumulate from bumping into things during senescence to develop major infections. The postcoital male goes directly to feeding the top of the local food chain (seals and sharks) and the bottom (Aeromonas, Vibrio, and Staphylococcus bacteria). The female retires to her cave, decorating it with garlands of tear-shaped eggs. She tends to the strands, blowing them with soft jets of oxygenated water for six months. To keep up her energy, the female metabolizes her own body, losing up to 70 percent of her weight. Soon after her eggs hatch, she dies. As Dr. Anderson repeated several times during our conversations: "There's no such thing as safe sex for octopuses."
Fittingly, Japanese doctors named a heart condition after the octopus: takotsubo cardiomyopathy or "broken-heart syndrome." The condition, in which a part of the human heart suddenly enlarges, is often caused by emotional stress like the sudden death or disappearance of someone you love. According to a study by the Mayo Clinic, takotsubo cardiomyopathy is fatal in 3.6 percent of cases. It got its name from either the clay jars used by Japanese fishermen to catch octopus (which resemble the shape of the heart enlargement) or after a story about a Japanese fisherman who fell in love with an octopus who didn't love her captor back. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is proof that it is medically possible to die of a broken heart.
Walking from the cafe to his apartment to look for a rare book on octopuses in Haida mythology, I asked Dr. Anderson what draws certain people to cephalopods. The way he talks about them suggests an interest than runs deeper than science—he talks about why people don't care about them as much as otters and killer whales and sharks, animals with "charismatic megafauna effect," and the edges of his voice take on a tinge of resentment. "Nobody's looking at octopuses besides me," he said. "There are two species, maybe three, living in Puget Sound. The Enteroctopus dofleini and the red octopuses, which like to live in beer bottles. Nobody knows how many there are of those, either. I once found eight in eight beer bottles in a row. On a night dive, I saw 12 in one spot. But nobody seems to care." He talked about how octopuses have personalities and maybe even emotions. "Nobody has proved that yet," he said. "It might be up to me." It takes a special kind of person, he suggests, to devote a life to the study of cephalopods.
What kind of person?
He paused. "You have to be different. They're not cute and cuddly. Some would say they have a cold intelligence."
That cold intelligence has confounded and intrigued people throughout history. Ancient cultures all over the world have assigned the octopus esoteric and malevolent powers: Hawaiian creation myths describe octopuses as alien leftovers from another incarnation of the universe. Kanaloa, one of the four ancient Hawaiian gods, is an octopus who lives in the underworld—or, alternately, a secret island full of beautiful people where it is forbidden to weep—and teaches magic. He's a little bit scary but also helpful, invoked to protect fishermen and to help find freshwater springs bubbling up from below. When Christian missionaries showed up, they tried to recast the four gods as the trinity and Satan, and Kanaloa became the bad guy. (To be fair, Kanaloa did lead a rebellion of spirits against the god Kane and was cast into the underworld, just like Satan in the Book of Revelation and Paradise Lost.)
The Haida of the Pacific Northwest tell stories about octopuses devouring canoes and sometimes whole villages, of fights and reconciliation with the tetchy Octopus People who live under the sea. Pliny the Elder wasn't a fan: "No animal is more savage in causing the death of a man in the water," he wrote. (Though Pliny also suggested curing a scorpion sting by incinerating the animal and drinking its ashes mixed with wine.)
The Roman naturalist and lecturer Claudius Aelianus wrote about an octopus in the coastal town of Puteoli that climbed through the sewers into the house of a local fisherman to steal his catch. This story is not as crazy as it sounds—octopuses get around. In 1998, a group of Brazilian biologists watched an octopus catch a sea bird that was standing on land, drag it into a tide pool to drown it, and begin gnawing on its tail.
Octopuses can leave the water for short periods of time and have certain skills of escape artists. Keeping an octopus in its tank has been a major preoccupation for aquariums since the beginning. From Cassell's Natural History, 1892:
The Octopus, like many other predaceous animals who seek their prey by night, habitually returns to skulk in the same retreat in the daytime. This practice enabled the resident Octopus of the Brighton Aquaa'ium to enjoy, for many weeks, the run of all the neighbouring tanks by night undetected, for, like the celebrated robber Peace, he was always to be found at home in the morning. But the rate at which he thinned the young Lump-fishes in an adjoining tank led to give suspicion, and after too hearty a meal one evening he imprudently stayed out all night, and was caught red-handed, gorged to distention, next morning, in the Lump-fishes' abode.
Octopus escapes are the leading reason amateur aquarists are discouraged from keeping the deadly blue-ring octopus. They're gorgeous, iridescent creatures, the size of a golf ball, and one of the most dangerous things in the ocean. Each blue-ring octopus carries enough paralytic venom to kill 26 human beings in minutes. While they have a low escape value (1.7 on a scale of 10; the giant Pacific octopus rates 6.7), pet-advice sites are unequivocal: "There are many instances where a hobbyist has stepped on their octopus in the morning a few rooms away from where the tank is... from time to time you may see the small blue-ring octopus for sale, DO NOT buy it, they are very venomous and can kill you. There are a lot of other species available that pose no danger to you or unsuspecting children or guests."
Several years ago, Dr. Roy Caldwell, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, was working on Thailand's Andaman Sea when the local morgue called his biology station. A German tourist had died on the beach near some tide pools, and the police couldn't figure out how. Dr. Caldwell found a small incision on the tourist's right shoulder, just the size and shape of a blue-ring octopus bite. The tourist, he concluded, found the lovely, shimmering creature in a tide pool, admired its pale skin and alien blue rings—the angrier they are, the more vibrantly beautiful they become—and put it on his shoulder, maybe for a photo. He was probably dead within minutes.
The last giant octopus escape at Seattle Aquarium was several years ago, when a night watchman found the creature in a quiet and nearly dead puddle of flesh on the floor. It recovered quickly after being returned to its tank, but the aquarium lowered the water level to discourage future escapes.
When they can't get out, some octopuses tear up their tanks. Another octopus at the Seattle Aquarium, nicknamed Lucretia McEvil, destroyed her life-support system in one night: She dug through several centimeters of sand, chewed through wires lashing down an undergravel filter plate (a ridged plate that covers the bottom of an aquarium, allowing beneficial bacteria to process ammonia buildup), yanked up the plate, and ripped it into pieces for the staff to fish out of her tank. Octopuses also squirt water at their keepers (either in play or hostility—it's hard to tell), and Dr. Anderson has heard of sensitive lab equipment ruined by precisely aimed jets of salt water.
Freud, of all people, was mysteriously quiet on the subject of octopuses, though he did write a letter from a vacation in Italy, boasting to his brother about "tickling an octopus." Some of Freud's disciples suggest that, in dreams, an octopus represents the superego. It did in one of Ian Fleming's final James Bond stories, "Octopussy." In the end, one of the villains—a retired intelligence agent who snorkels every day in Jamaica—is held underwater and drowned by an octopus he thought was his friend.
The disturbing sensation of eating the chopped tentacle in Japan stuck with me—its spastic movements felt so specific, so alive, like the tentacle knew what was happening. Strangely, it might have.
"Consciousness" is a hot word among scientists. Hardly anybody agrees on what it means and whether any species has it besides humans. But the octopus has a memory and, perhaps, self-awareness. It can learn to navigate mazes, open jars and bottles, and play—a startling discovery that landed Dr. Anderson and his coresearcher Jennifer Mather in the New York Times. Mather and Anderson watched octopuses play catch with floating pill bottles, blowing them toward the jets in their tanks, catching them on the return shot, and blowing them back. One octopus experimented with angles, finding a way to send the pill bottle in circles.
Anderson also found that giant octopuses could recognize individual faces using a simple good-cop/bad-cop experiment. Twice a day, five days a week, one person would feed eight different octopuses and another person would rub them with an irritating, bristly brush. The octopuses began to reach out toward the feeder and shrink away from—or blow hostile jets of water at—the hassler. Within two weeks, the feeder and the hassler could walk up to the tank without any food or brush and get the same response.
"Giant Pacific octopuses are not as smart as a dog or a cat," Dr. Anderson says. "But they're smarter than your average tweety bird." Giant octopuses require greater intelligence than deep-water octopuses to survive their changeable tidal environment, Anderson explains. "I had a friend who worked on the deep-water octopus. Said it was dumb as a doorknob." Because giant octopuses lead solitary lives and don't learn from each other, they need memory to successfully explore crevices, find food, and flee prey.
A 2006 paper by Mather suggests octopuses are a lot smarter than "your average tweety bird." They lateralize information, transferring it from one half of the brain to another: something mammals can do but birds cannot. (The study involved training an octopus to make a visual distinction with one eye—right eye learning a shape, for example—which only goes to one half of the brain. They then surgically disconnected the two halves of the brain and found the octopuses could recognize the shape with the other, "untrained" eye. Researchers found that the information, with repeated exposure to that shape, could travel to the other half of the brain.) Mather also ran sleep tests, discovering that if octopuses were kept awake, they showed sleep rebound—longer, deeper sleep—the following night. She also suggests octopuses have a kind of REM sleep: "During the sleep time, [Mather and her team] found a specific colour change not seen at other times, leading them to suggest a cephalopod equivalent of mammalian REM sleep, which is commonly associated with consolidation into episodic memory." Tucked into the nooks of their underwater skyscrapers-in-reverse, the giant octopuses might be dreaming.
Weirder still is a passage from an article coauthored by experimental neurobiologist David B. Edelman in a 2005 issue of Consciousness and Cognition:
A peculiarity of the octopus nervous system is the density of neurons located in the tentacles, which taken together, exceeds the total number of neurons in the brain itself. [Three-fifths of an octopus's neurons are in its limbs instead of its brain.] Consistent with this fact, a recent study showed that a detached octopus arm could be made to flail realistically when stimulated with short electrical pulses... Accordingly, in a detached vertebrate limb it is simply not possible to produce the suite of coordinated movements that is characteristic of complex vertebrate locomotion. In contrast, what is striking about the octopus is the sophistication of the semi-autonomous neural networks in its tentacles and their local motor programs. These observations bear on the assessment of consciousness in the sense that they may alter the notions of embodiment and bodily representation as they have been set forth by cognitive scientists and philosophers. In any case, it is not likely that the question "what is it like to be an octopus tentacle?" will ever be posed by any rational philosopher.
Maybe not. But with all those "semi- autonomous neural networks," maybe a severed octopus tentacle has a kind of intelligence that a human limb doesn't.
I'm beginning to wonder what the tentacle I was chewing, back in that dark-paneled room in a restaurant in Osaka, was thinking.
Baby octopuses might be the cupcakes of the sea, but the adult octopus resists cooking. Its arms are raw power— great, tapering cylinders with a sticky membrane, perfectly adapted for reaching and grabbing, but a challenge to a chef. Prepared properly, well-cooked octopus needs little embellishment. It's subtly sweet, not too briny, never mushy, not quite of the ocean but not quite of the land. The ancient Hawaiians weren't far off: The texture and taste is alien.
Like organ meats, oysters, and bone marrow, cooked octopus has a magical quality, as if eating it gives you special powers. While in Japan, I taught a terse, hulking high-school student who wanted to be a professional wrestler. He ate a lot of everything, but his favorite foods were octopus and rice. "When I eat rice, I feel The Power," he would say. "And the tako—makes strong!"
Octopus is easy to screw up. Prepared poorly, it's as tasteless and tough as a garden hose stuffed with condoms. Sushi chefs slice the tentacles very thinly, massage them, then pound them with peeled daikon radish before poaching. The chefs at Txori—serving some of the best octopus in Seattle—get their cephalopods from the cold Atlantic waters of Galicia, in northern Spain, and serve them in the traditional way: three-step poaching (put salted water on the stove to boil, throw in the octopus, bring it to a boil, remove and cool, repeat twice) before grilling it, dusting it with paprika, and placing the slices atop a piece of red potato. They also follow the tradition of placing a wine cork in the poaching water—whether this tradition has its origins in science or superstition, they cannot say. The pulpo is one of Txori's most popular dishes—it's the lead photo on their homepage—but they've been out for a couple of months. (Txori's mustachioed chef, Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez, is currently in Spain, in part to sort out their octopus situation.)
Right now, you can find octopus (Eledone cirrhosa, also called the "curled" or "horned" octopus) prepared in a Filipino-Italian style at Tavolàta in Belltown. The handsome chef de cuisine, Morgan Medlock, meets me in the open kitchen and leads me down the stairs to a walk-in cooler where trays of chanterelle mushrooms nestle against unlabeled boxes and a raw purple octopus, dead and reclining in a tub of cool water. Medlock learned to cook octopus during a year in the Philippines, braising it for four hours in red wine and salt, then charring it on a grill. A tall, young sous chef named Brandon, who is also downstairs, had a different idea—he suggested braising it in red wine and red-wine vinegar, with sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf, a method he learned in San Francisco.
"We took the Pepsi challenge," Medlock says. "And his version won."
The cooks at Tavolàta discard the head (though Txori chops and uses its in a salad) then cut the beast in half for the long braising. The tentacles cook down to a tamed, almost shriveled version of their oceanic glory. Tavolàta cuts those halves in half and braids them, leaving the suckers as the "show side." Back upstairs, a cook named Brendan rubs the cooked tentacle-braid with oil and salt, and sets it on the grill. While it cooks, Brandon prepares a dish of halibut on a bed of chanterelles and greens, carefully sculpting off loose bits of halibut and wiping the plate while Medlock watches like a piano teacher at a recital, frowning with concentration but nodding with approval. Somebody mentions this season of the reality show Top Chef (with two contestants from Seattle: Ashley Merriman of Branzino and Robin Leventhal of the defunct Crave). The chefs, normally tattooed and stoic and manful, immediately begin gossiping like preteen girls, swapping rumors about whether Merriman won and the multimillion-dollar nondisclosure agreement she had to sign.
Finally, the octopus braid is done. Brendan scoops two little mounds of spicy golden tomato confit, pulls apart some Italian parsley, and slices baby zucchini and heirloom cherry tomatoes for an accompanying salad. He sets the braids on top, sucker-side up, and slides the dish toward me.
Tavolàta does it marvelously: The tentacles are dense, but not at all tough, their purple color darkened by the wine and the charring—all those neurons, taste buds, muscle power, and protein rendered tame, delicious, and still. As I swallow, I can feel The Power.
* People used to think the word "octopus" came from Latin and its plural was "octopi." Turns out, the word was probably borrowed from Greek, making "octopodes" the technically correct plural. But some Latin inflections offend American ears, and people who aren't either scientists or show-offs won't say "octopodes," just like they don't say "agendum" or "datum" or "dogmata"—which leaves us with "octopuses." Both Merriam-Webster's Tenth Edition and the Oxford English Dictionary basically throw their hands up on this question and remain agnostic.