Canned squid and the damage done

The little yellow box on the clearance shelf caught my eye. Its vibrant art deco motif suggested the product might have been packaged anytime between 1929 and present day. But this was no antique shop. This was the Hibbing Walmart. A chorus of computerized beeps sang from the registers while this strange box marked “Vigo” competed with nearby king size Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Monster Energy drinks.

The writing was in Spanish, so it took me a moment to realize what “Colosal Calamar” meant. “Producto Del Mar” it read, a product of the sea. I flipped the box over to realize that the English label was on the other side. This was canned jumbo squid imported from Spain.

Our species might never achieve the recognition or forgiveness it deserves for outcomes like this. Squid captured from waters off the Iberian Peninsula became canned food, shipped over the ocean, across the land of the Algonquin deep into the wooded highlands of the Upper Midwest.

This can — an improbable miracle of logistics — languished on the shelf of the Hibbing Walmart for months. Countless local teens passed by, each repeating, “Ew, squid,” while shopping for hot sauce from the international foods aisle. Disinterest exiled the squid to a haphazard shelf of misfit edibles at the front of the store. The price tag read $2.28.

For less than a gallon of gas or a 20-ounce bottle of pop I could take home squid presumably harvested by native speakers of one of the romance languages. It wouldn’t expire until 2027, qualifying this as a long-term investment. So that’s how an animal that dives to crushing depths in the dark and briny expanse of Neptune’s kingdom became mine. Well, parts of it, anyway.

Though the box that held the can was clearly labeled “jumbo squid,” the screen said “octopus” when I checked out. Later, I explained this to my wife so she wouldn’t be confused when she saw the receipt. Despite my qualification, she remained perplexed.

What would be the result of this experiment? How long can this complicated machinery of global capitalism endure? Will my unborn grandchildren one day retell my stories of these strange days? More important, was the squid any good?

Reader, it was a journey of sensory experience no less fraught than the squid’s passage from Spain.

I erred in watching a series of YouTube videos of people eating this brand of squid. In one video, a reviewer described the squid as seafood-flavored chewing gum. His partner started burping uncontrollably after a few minutes. In another video a man silently chewed the squid for a full minute. It appeared that he edited the video to elapse time, so it could have been much longer than that. Eventually, he concluded that it tasted like “nothing,” before suggesting horseradish sauce.

My research continued. Dedicated squid eaters strongly recommended draining the oil and spritzing the tentacle bits with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Others recommended serving it with a starch such as pasta. So I started boiling some elbow macaroni and popped open the can.

The smell whisked my senses to the salty shores of the ocean. Low tide, perhaps, but the ocean nonetheless.

Lemon juice and salt helped. I was hoping for something like a shrimp cocktail, but this was not that. I disagree that squid is like seafood-flavored chewing gum. It’s more like seafood-flavored gristle. The flavor is subtle, unobjectionable, but ultimately not worth the chewing.

When the pasta was ready, I added butter and squid. For anyone still considering the matter, this was way to go. Lemon juice adds tang, but butter absolves sin. Squid in pasta reminded me a little of morel mushrooms. Gas station morel mushrooms, maybe, but good enough to eat.

Squid will not be part of my regular diet for several reasons. Research revealed that the fat content and chemicals found in canned squid demotes it to “eat only rarely.” I’m not always one to adhere to health recommendations from the internet, but in this case I will defer to the experts, whoever they are.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Fred Schumacher says

    Ironically, I was just reading “The Shadow Armada: China has expanded a fleet of far-flung fishing vessels. This has come at grave human cost” in the October 16, 2023 issue of The New Yorker, when my wife mentioned your column on squid. It turns out that squid is the largest catch in the world’s oceans, other more desirable sea food having been overfished, and China is by far the largest fisher of squid, with its fishing fleet also acting as a form of governmental reach and intelligence gathering. You should read the article and it will probably increase your reluctance to eat squid. Among other things, China’s non-Chinese fishing boat crew members are treated as virtual slaves.

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