Some fish require a sacred spot on the living-room wall. They might even bring out a little Papa Hemingway in you: “It was a good fish. The night was long and dark, the way a night should be. Katherine didn’t understand. She never would, but none of that mattered now that the line was tight and it was just the fish. That’s all there was.” You know the fish I’m talking about: the glamorous kind that makes women swoon and men grit their teeth with envy. But what happens when the fish you heroically slay is just a gangly squid? Even now I can sense your derision, but the truth is, I can land Illex illecebrosus (shortfin squid) with the best of them and live to tell you all about it—including how squid most likely got their name.
Their nomenclature became immediately apparent the very first time I caught one. There was a bending of the rod, followed by a slight tug, characteristics shared with the snaring of any other sea creature. All similarities stopped, however, when the squid broke surface and started frantically squirting water, much like a kid might do when his water pistol is running out of ammunition. Squirt. Squirt. Squirt. The squid was fighting to stay submerged the only way it knew how, by blowing water out its beak. Along with jellyfish, squid and other cephalopods are the only jet-propelled animals in the oceans. They draw in water and then expel it to move silently at speeds of up to six knots. Odds are that the origin of their common name is a dialectal version of the word squirt, and it comes from this propulsive action.
You don’t go after squid for sport or to have something impressive to say at the next board meeting. No, you fish shortfin squid (which, unlike longfin species, visit the harbors where land-based fishermen can catch them) for a very simple reason: food, and mighty fine food at that. I learned how to catch squid from a local fisherman named Eddie, a Filipino-American who has caught 200 squid in a single outing. “There were so many, I had to go out and buy a freezer just so we could eat them all winter,” he confided to me one evening. All good squid fishing occurs at night, when the squid are attracted to the harbor lights. (Commercial squid fishermen, in fact, hire other boats merely to shine lights on the ocean to help them make their catch.) Anyway, Eddie is one of the Filipino immigrants who introduced squidding to my area of Maine. Before their arrival, squid were just an occasional freaky bycatch, tossed back into the water with disgust by locals who were going after mackerel.
A few years back, Eddie and his fellow squidders started showing up near dusk on nights when the tide was rising. Once darkness fell, they would reel in squid up-on squid, using either the dock lights or their own, plugged into a handy outlet, to attract them. Some of us mackerel fishermen, watching with envy, soon found ourselves buying the hottest Japanese-made squid jigs and attempting to do the same, side by side on the ever more crowded dock. Most evenings, Eddie would set the tone. One time, he squidded for just a few minutes, then abruptly left, explaining, “Bad night for squid. Cast five times. Nothing. Time to go home.” Eddie always made room for my entire family—even with the four kids fighting, screaming, and casting jigs perilously close to his face—while calmly doling out advice: Let your jig sink to the bottom and slowly jig to the top; fish an hour or so before high tide, at high tide, and then an hour or so after; cast out in the middle of the channel for the really big squid, with bodies more than a foot long; and remember that squid recipes are only limited by one’s imagination. He didn’t actually state that last piece of information, but I gleaned it from the endless list he uttered when I asked how he prepared them. After he’d described what seemed like a dozen methods in less than a minute, he asked me how I liked to cook them. He almost choked with laughter when I told him about soaking them in beer before tossing them in a one-to-one mixture of flour and cornmeal. “You trying to get them drunk?” he asked. (I have since switched the liquid to milk after learning that it helps tenderize them.)
Perhaps feeling pity, he started to explain his favorite recipe: stuffed, baked squid. He uses ground beef, peppers, garlic, and I don’t know what else, because at that moment his rod bent with a jerk and with great delight he interrupted himself by repeating, “Squid! Squid! Squid!” I never found out Eddie’s remaining ingredients, but no matter: I have tried stuffing squid with practically anything and everything and have not yet been disappointed. They’re so versatile, in fact, that I have dubbed squid the Hamburger Helper of the sea. Squid on!