What Spirit Animals Can Teach You About Food and Health

by | Aug 4, 2015
by Austen Caldwell

by Austen Caldwell

And now for something completely different….

I haven’t told many people this, but the octopus is my spirit animal. I know that scientists aren’t supposed to have spirit animals, and if I told you how I got mine you probably wouldn’t believe me. Regardless, the symbol of the octopus has been undeniably helpful for me in untangling the events of my life that have challenged me to the core and shaped who I am (I call these transformative gifts). Maybe it is because he has so many arms.

The reason I’m telling you my octopus secret now is that a friend of mine, Austen Caldwell (we go back 26 years, is friend still the right word?), has also recently become enamored by the octopus in a way that kinda sorta relates to food.

To me, the healthiest relationship you can have with food is one of respect and appreciation. You should respect food, no matter what it is or where it comes from. You should appreciate all aspects of it, including it’s life and how it enhances yours.

Thank you Austen for helping us celebrate the octopus today. I’ve added a few of my own notes in brackets.

Austen Caldwell is a huge nerd. You can find him writing about sports, real and imaginary, at The Iron, Unkind. or drawing pictures of Godzilla on cocktail napkins. Follow him on Twitter @destroytokyo and argue with him about Speed Racer being the greatest comic book adaptation of all time.

The Octopi and the Ocean and Us

by Austen Caldwell

Here is a list of things I know about the octopus:

  1. They are awesome.
  2. I love them.

It’s super scientific, I know. If you’ve ever watched an octopus glide through the water, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. They’re crazy, right? And super huggable. Eight arms to hold you, as Veruca Salt (the band, not the Roald Dahl character) once said. It’s actually four pairs of arms, which basically means octopuses are twice as awesome as Goro from Mortal Kombat.

Their bodies are impossibly pliable, with no skeleton, exo or endo, while simultaneously fast and graceful. The octopus can accordion itself into the smallest crevice or speed past by means of biological jet propulsion. It’s like a fleshy Transformer or that liquid metal dude from Terminator 2. In short, awesome.

I’m not alone in my adoration of the octopus. Nor should I be. They are magnificent and creepy and bizarre and gorgeous and luminous and magical and for crying out loud they can camouflage themselves like the goddamn Predator! [The fake dinosaur from the new Jurassic Park movie can apparently camouflage thanks to cuttlefish DNA. Everyone’s on the cephalopod bandwagon. It’s science!]

Sure, I was fascinated when I saw Robin Williams’s Popeye battle an octopus back in the early ‘80s, and as a nerd I have a healthy appreciation for H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, but it was a comic book by a New Englander named Dan James that made me fall in love forever. For reals, make the time and read The Octopi and the Ocean because it might just change your life. [From Darya: The official pluralization of octopus is octopuses, but that shouldn’t affect your opinion of the book].



What James highlights so well is the simplicity and elegance of the creature. His illustrations are tribal and fluid, using the unique design of the octopus to frame the story he’s telling.

That’s part of the beauty of the octopus, its remarkable adaptability. I think that may be why one of my best friends called it her spirit animal [From Darya: That would be me]. I mean, it looks cool and all, but its real strength is its ability to thrive in places that no one else could navigate. Maybe it’s the deep sea; maybe it’s a comic book; maybe it’s our nightmares.

Maybe it’s our dreams.

There’s something lyrical about watching an octopus mid-flight. Not unlike the manta ray or the shark, they move with an ease that astounds and terrifies us, but to do so with so many moving parts is astonishing. I can’t even manage a kick drum and a high hat at the same time, yet somehow the octopus is balancing eight limbs at once.

If that was the end, that would be enough. The octopus is an object of wonder and awe because of its incredible body, and maybe because it looks like it has a huge brain, but it uses tools! It builds forts like we do! And it’s delicious.

I recently had the good fortune to meet a pair of octopuses on the same day. One was a giant Pacific octopus and resident of the Seattle Aquarium. The other was on a plate later that evening at a renowned oyster bar just a few miles north. An important part of being an omnivore is the acknowledgement that sometimes we eat creatures that were once alive. Even those as magical as the octopus.

If you’ve ever been to the Mediterranean, you’ve likely had grilled octopus. (Unless, of course, the aggressively tentacle-y nature of them creeps you out.) [From Darya: Which is of course your fault, not theirs]. If you’ve ever had a plate of sashimi, slices of octopus sit right next to more common cuts of tuna and snapper. It has a texture unlike anything else you’ve ever eaten, and in the wrong hands, can be tough or chewy. But when well prepared, it’s almost unfair how wonderful it is. A nice sear and a splash of lemon can be all that it takes, but sometimes we humans can add some magic to the already magical octopus.

That was the feeling I left with when I exited The Walrus and the Carpenter. The oysters were amazing, the staff hunky and helpful, but I could not stop thinking about the octopus ceviche. I could not stop thinking about its tender snap, resisting and giving way at once. I could not stop thinking about the salt, the water, the sea. Even hours after I tasted it, I was still swimming in it, gliding, maybe not so gracefully as the octopus itself, but still buoyed by the water around me, in the air, in the Sound, in myself.

We’re drawn to the water. We’re made of water. The best food comes from the water and the best compliment we give it is that it tastes like the ocean. The oyster is supposed to be the thing that is most ocean-like in its flavor, but I keep coming back to that damn octopus. I can’t get it out of my head and I have no desire to do so either.

Everything about the octopus reminds me of how alien it is. Its texture, its structure, is unique. Nothing on earth is like that thing, and so it remains intriguing, fascinating. The slow, deliberate motion of the arms is like watching a funeral procession, complete with Mozart’s Requiem. It is beauty and strangeness and foreign and home and exotic and welcoming and unique and sticky and colorful and adaptable and smart and my best friend.

My friend called it her spirit animal. Another recently asked me to draw a picture of one. Because the thing is remarkable. Whether as an object of wonder or a culinary delight, the octopus is something that fascinates us and surprises us and treats us. For crying out loud, it has THREE HEARTS. We’re lucky it’s around, waiting patiently with eight arms to hold us.

Austen Caldwell is a huge nerd. You can find him writing about sports, real and imaginary, at theironunkind.wordpress.com or drawing pictures of Godzilla on cocktail napkins. Follow him on Twitter @destroytokyo and argue with him about Speed Racer being the greatest comic book adaptation of all time.

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12 Responses to “What Spirit Animals Can Teach You About Food and Health”

  1. Steve says:

    I’m sorry, but octopuses or octopii or whatever ARE DISGUSTING!! They’re slimy shape-shifters who have have A PAIR of beaks and teeth ON THEIR TONGUE!!! They excrete a blinding inky junk as they slither their nefarious way thru the waters. How do they disgust me? Let me count the ways.

  2. Lainey says:

    Ha ha Steve that really made me laugh! A fine antidote to all the awesomeness in the post 🙂

  3. Kate says:

    I’ve loved them since I saw a science/nature show years ago that talked about how a fairly rare, deep sea specimen of octopus was being kept alive in a lab to be studied. In the same lab, all the way across the room, was a tank of various shellfish for food.

    The scientists came in one morning and found crab shells on the floor. They set up a camera overnight and the next day watched in awe as this octopus used its tentacles to open up its “secure” tank, climbed out of the tank, down the table legs, across the lab floor, and up onto the table where the crabs were kept … and well, you can guess the rest.

  4. Annie says:

    Octopi is perfectly acceptable as the plural of octopus even though it may have no etymological basis.

    • Austen says:

      I know, I just used ‘octopuses’ because it’s the preferred method in scientific journals, even though common usage has legitimized ‘octopi’. Old habits are hard to hard to break. 😉

  5. Erin says:

    They are indeed wonderful animals, and if you have even been scuba diving on a reef you may have gone by several octopus gardens! The gardens are real! You can identify them by the number of shells surrounding an impossibly small hole or crevice in the reef. The octopus will find prey, bring it home to eat and throw the empty shell out the door! Really cool!

  6. Mary says:

    I simply love Octopus. I first had the most wonderful grilled octopus in Madrid. Three of us declared it the most delicious dish that we had ever tasted. Was it the texture, the sweet yet briney sea taste, the tenderness with just the right amount of tooth? It was delectable. After asking three chefs the secret to their tenderness I know it is possible to have this dish that I dream about. Andina a Peruvian restaurant in Portland, Oregon has such octopus in their Ceviche. Thank you for the memory…dreaming of Octopus!

  7. Suzanne says:

    took three online quizzes to find my spirit animal… 3 different answers… butterfly, wolverine and whale??? hmmm…..

  8. Austen says:

    I do love a good Monty Python joke tho…

  9. Sarah says:

    I agree with all the opinions of the writer, even that the octopus tastes amazing, but I do not eat them anymore because they are intelligent, amazing creatures that have not been domesticated for consumption. I just can’t eat something that uses tools! I wouldn’t eat a bonobo or a chimp, octopuses quite possibly are just as intelligent.

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