Knowing I would have never seen it otherwise, someone asked me to watch an episode of Bizarre Foods, the wildly popular program hosted by Andrew Zimmern, whose professed creed is “if it looks good, eat it”—leaving one to wonder what his definition of “looks good” could possibly be based on. In any event, this is what I observed from that episode:
Andrew begins by walking into a crowded, noisy restaurant in Japan sitting down between two people on a stool at a counter—behind which, the cooking is accomplished for all to see. Zimmern states that this is why he “loves restaurants in Japan” because of “their noise and also freshness of seafood.” The camera then, on cue from the “freshness” comment, turns to capture the chef pulling an octopus out of a pan on the floor. The octopus was, of course, very “fresh” and very alive as it gracefully and purposefully moved the tips of its eight legs, gently up and down the chef’s hands and arms as the animal tried to assimilate textures, colors, and temperatures, attempting to make sense out of its new surroundings. That’s what octopuses (or octopi) do. They are quite intelligent beings with a large cognitive brain and complex sensory input mechanisms that researchers have recently found to be able to problem solve. They can gather information, process it, and then implement well thought out functions. Female octopuses are very sensitive with a strong maternal instinct—so strong that they mandatorily give up their life in the process of having offspring and protecting them after birth.
The Bizarre Foods’ camera crew then moved back to Zimmern. The person sitting in the next stool put her hand on his baldhead and said “the octopus has a head like yours”, referring to Zimmern’s shiny, hairless scalp. A good laugh ensued while the camera focused on the chef pushing the octopus down with both his hands into a pot of boiling oil over a red-hot burner in order to kill and cook the poor unsuspecting octopus.
We weren’t allowed to see how the octopus reacted to being held in oil as it was being boiled to death—portions to be then later served for Zimmern to eat. Imagine, for just a moment, what that octopus must have experienced as it went from attempting to carefully feel, see, interpret, and adapt to the chef’s hands with the thousands of sensory receptors on its legs—sending those inputs to an intelligent and quickly processing brain—to the next moment of being forcefully held in boiling oil, scalded to death. Actually, you can’t really imagine it, because you are not an octopus.
Although we are still learning about octopuses, (while killing 2.5 million tons of them and other cephalopods such as squid each year) it is has been quite well established that they are very sentient beings that feel and think in ways we do not understand. It can also be said that like all animals, octopuses only eat what they need to in order to survive. They kill only because they NEED to and without knowing that they are inflicting pain or suffering on any other living thing—quite unlike Andrew Zimmern and 98% of all other humans on this planet who kill because they WANT to kill, and then eat whatever it was that they just killed. All this, for no nutritional reason (there are many plant based foods that are infinitely healthier for us to consume). So, no, the person sitting next to Zimmern was not correct with her comment to him. The octopus does NOT have a “head” like his.
More About the Octopus:
The common octopus (vulgaris) is found in many oceans worldwide. Although found frequently in numerous sushi restaurants in the United States and elsewhere in the world, it would be rare to know exactly what species you are eating. All octopus species are suffering from overfishing, especially in the fisheries of Mauritania, Vietnam, and Japan. All researchers agree that octopus is a poorly understood species with no fishery management and dwindling numbers. They are also caught in large numbers as bykill with long line and other fishing methods.
The majority of octopuses are caught by bottom trawling techniques, where (in addition to loss of octopus species) further damage is done to sea beds, other species, and interdependent ecosystems. Although little is known about octopus, much is known about the detrimental impact that bottom trawling inflicts on delicate and sensitive seafloor habitats. Isn’t that a curious but commonly seen combination of factors regarding what we decide to eat as a global society—we know very little about the species we are killing, knowingly ruin ecosystems and other wildlife in the process, in order to consume something we call food. This “food” though, is in reality, vastly inferior to plants that we could be eating, from a nutritional standpoint. The highly respected Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (MBASW) places a “Good Alternative” recommendation for octopus, especially if they are captured from Hawaii or the Gulf of California, despite admitting in their Summary that octopus, “suffer from a lack of solid information and little or no fishery management.”
Given that this statement is accurate, it becomes just another frustrating example of the dichotomy created by guiding institutions that we consider to be leaders.
I am still waiting for the proper management of information to be accomplished and then disseminated by those in positions of informational power such as MBASW. Something along these lines would be nice to hear: “As with all sealife and consistent with other researchers, we at Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch admit to knowing very little about the octopus or the effects of our attempts at capturing them have on all the ecosystems and habitats involved. Therefore it is our humble opinion that we should stop all harvesting activities of octopus and any methods of fishing that affect them or their habitat such as trawling and long line operations that find them as bykill. Of course these fishing activities in pursuit of octopus are propelled by, and begin with, our demand to eat them—so it is our strong recommendation that the ordering and consumption of octopus ends.”
Yes, wouldn’t that be nice. And, appropriate.
More About Andrew Zimmern:
I need to somewhat apologize if this blog seems to weigh too heavily on the animal rights or animal sensitivity theme and if it appears to be too harsh towards Zimmern. However, he and his show are manifestations of our generalized lack of awareness and greater lack of compassion. This is more than worrisome to me. It’s time we convey the true sad state of our media—who it is that is awarded platforms and what they have to say about the food we eat. It is critical that we speak out about this imbalance of public information.
Zimmern is an award winning monthly columnist for magazines, a journalist with numerous national and international publications, spokesperson for large corporations, an acclaimed author of many books, and now has a highly popular television program for which he is the producer, writer, and host. In 2010, Zimmern even won the prestigious James Beard Award for ‘Outstanding Television Food Personality.’
With all those accolades comes the stark realization that we are a society of skewed virtues and archaic behavior, if not a collective intellectual void. I am struggling to find other ways to describe this.
Zimmern’s pilot show on November 1, 2006 (the ‘test’ show where it is either accepted as a potential hit or quickly discarded as another flop) was a solid indicator of what was to come. That first show highlighted Zimmern eating what he and the indigenous people considered ‘food’ from Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand. He proceeded to eat fish bladder, turtle (most likely an endangered species), frog ovary, and even the beating heart of a frog –sashimi (fresh). He revealed all of this in a positive, enthusiastically supportive manner as he does in all of his subsequent shows because this very first one was so successful, it served as the catalyst. In the next two episodes, Zimmern showed his growing audience how acceptable and enjoyable it was to eat lamb tongue and eye, soup made from a bull’s rectum and testicles, a pie made of pigeons, a calf’s brain and a cow’s heart, stuffed pig pancreas, more frog, and even balut—a duck embryo (pre hatched chick) that was boiled alive in its shell. Somewhere buried in each of these segments, he will throw in a brief comment about a unique fruit. For instance in the first three full episodes, he spent a conciliatory minute or so introducing the calamondin and durian.
I am writing this in complete amazement, utter disbelief, and true embarrassment of how we as a society can place this person and his work in such high esteem for not merely perpetuating, but essentially sensationalizing the gruesome, medieval act of torturing, slaughtering, and eating creatures that, if they had a choice, would certainly run, fly, or swim in the other direction—away from this predator. But, it is not Zimmern who is at fault here for doing anything wrong, it is clearly us. We are the ones condoning this and that are more interested in seeing the “bizarre” as it relates to killing and eating animals or body parts of animals than we are in perhaps learning about bizarre or unusual plants—plants that are not only unique (‘bizarre’) but also that are healthy to our planet or to us. Why can’t we be interested in hearing about plants such as the sacha inchi seed or acai berry that can be grown in the rainforests sustainably and provide some of the most powerful phytonutrients and healthy micronutrients found in the world, or how teff an ancient grain from the highlands of Ethiopia might be grown to help reduce world hunger and poverty in that region and elsewhere, or unique plants that can be eaten to cure diseases—but then, I almost forgot…this would be considered ‘educational’ instead of simply mindless entertainment and therefore most likely not tolerated or even accepted by the populace. After all, Zimmern knows what the audience wants to watch and that’s why he is successful—at least from an economic and popularity standpoint. This fact, and of course the shows themselves (now that I’ve seen a one or two of them), make me so very sad on many levels. Please no offense to Andrew Zimmern himself, but my thought is that we, as an intelligent, compassionate society with a conscience—a society deeply concerned about all living things that we share this planet with—should have taken that very first Bizarre Foods ‘pilot’ show and buried it swiftly and deeply in a hole in the ground so as to not ever have to admit that one of our kind produced it.
Please stay tuned as we return to more topics of Comfortably Unaware soon, inspiring others to become aware—and compassionate!