Squid Pro Quo

How Americans developed a taste for one of the greenest ingredients in the sea.

On a frigid morning in February, the Jason-Danielle, a 90-foot trawler, leaves Montauk and steams due southwest for nearly 12 hours to Hudson Canyon, an ocean-floor extension of the Hudson River Valley that runs 400 nautical miles from New York Harbor into the Atlantic, hitting depths up to two miles.

The canyon is frequented by winter fishing vessels drawn here in pursuit of the vast schools of an abundant catch: squid. Recent captain Bill Grimm, a wide-shouldered, thick-handed man in his mid-50s, headed several boats before the Jason-Danielle. He moved to Montauk as a 20-something looking to surf and party and ended up helping to launch the United States’s Atlantic squid fishery in the late 1970s.

“We chase the squid from a few miles off the beach here all the way to the Canadian fishing border and as far south as Virginia,” says Grimm. The northwest Atlantic is the second-largest squid fishery in the country and among the largest in the world. The annual New York catch is worth $8 million and weighs six million pounds.

“In winter, we try to fish around the clock,” says Grimm who, with fellow squid-pioneer Captain Hank Lackner, owns a second 90-foot trawler and a smaller boat that also fish for squid. “That can go on for three or four days. If fishing is really good, you don’t get much sleep.” At sea his crew subsists on sandwiches and coffee. The boat’s enormous net, which opens as wide as a city block is long, skims the ocean floor. In a few days of exploring the edge of the Continental Shelf, Grimm’s crew fills its hold with 30,000 pounds of squid. That’s enough to feed 80,000 people a six-ounce serving of calamari.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List calls all squid “a good alternative” but singles out Atlantic longfin squid as the “best choice,” in part because it’s breathtakingly plentiful: the squid fleet, mostly out of Montauk, brings in New York’s third-biggest catch in terms of volume and fourth in terms of value. In winter and spring, as many as 10 tractor-trailers a day leave Montauk full of squid, destined for Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point, Bronx, the largest seafood depot in the country, and for squid processors in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Rhode Island. Bearing the less romantic name “squid rings,” the ingredient leads app offerings from Red Lobster to Hooters, alongside buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks. Given this cephalopod’s ubiquity (squid is a cousin to cuttlefish and octopus), it’s hard to believe the New York boats only began fishing for squid a few decades ago. And that a generation ago, few Americans would have recognized it as food.

Squid has been fished since ancient times from Japan to Portugal, but it wasn’t until legislative and demographic changes in the 1970s that American boats began catching squid for export, and even later that Americans developed an appetite for it.

“Thirty-five years ago there was hardly any squid landed in New York, New Jersey or Rhode Island,” says Emerson Hasbrouck, a senior educator for fisheries management at Cornell Cooperative Extension on Long Island, where he directed the marine program until retiring last year.

As a young marine scientist he recalls seeing vast schools of squid off Long Island, but they were largely ignored by American fishermen, considered bycatch or bait, since domestic demand was nonexistent.

But trawlers from Japan and Italy began showing up off the Atlantic Coast in the 1960s, in search of squid, and American interests took notice. The federal government restricted access to the Atlantic squid fishery from foreign vessels with the Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976, which declared jurisdiction up to 200 miles from the coast. It was partly a Cold War–era assertion over waters that were generally considered international, and partly an attempt to plan marine management at a time when ocean traffic was increasing and many fish stocks declining.

Their interest piqued by foreign ships overflowing with squid, state and federal programs began providing instruction and technology to fishermen in need of a new catch, given the increasingly overexploited populations of mainstays like haddock, flounder and cod. At first, in “joint venture” arrangements, American boats would make a drag and transfer one end of the full net to the Japanese (or sometimes Spanish or Italian) factory boat sitting a few miles offshore, which would suck it into their boats and head home. Similar arrangements spread from Montauk to nearby trawler fleets, including in Point Judith, Rhode Island, and Cape May, New Jersey. Eventually seafood processors in New York and New Jersey imported state-of-the-art squid-skinning machines to meet European taste for squid.

In the late 1970s, there was no question that foreign markets would quickly gobble up the sweet New England squid in demand from Tokyo to the Mediterranean. But squid was propulsing its way into our cuisine at home, too. The sharp rise in immigration created a domestic demand from Asian-American cooks and Asian-owned restaurants in the 1970s and 1980s. Established Portuguese and Italian restaurants in Newark, Long Island and the five boroughs tapped into the increasingly available local supply.

Seafood distributors in the New York area saw squid sales jump from a few hundred thousand pounds in 1979 to several million pounds by the mid-1980s. Gristedes, Food Emporium and D’Agostinos in New York City and Shop-Rite in New Jersey were early adopters, adding calamari to their freezer sections and squid salad to their deli cases.

Tastes were changing. A 1988 Associated Press article entitled “Americans Not as Finicky About What They Put in Their Mouths” noted that squid was showing up on menus “alongside escargot and sushi, in these days of culinary adventure.”

A Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler ad from the same era joked that its wine cooler could make even squid go down easy. Squid made appearances in Better Homes & Gardens the same year. By the late 1980s, Red Lobster alone was buying nearly a million pounds a year, and other seafood chains followed suit; calamari has held strong on Red Lobster’s menu for over 30 years. As stocks of popular fish such as cod, tuna and swordfish declined, squid stood out as cheap and abundant. The fact that it freezes well and fries even better didn’t hurt.

Eventually the American demand became so great that processors actually started importing frozen squid from overseas — from China, India, Argentina and Thailand.

In 1990, Jeff Licata, after a career as a technician on the New York Stock Exchange, opened Top Catch in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with squid-processing machinery he imported from Italy. New York seafood runs in his veins: Licata’s great-grandfather opened the wholesale-retail Licata Seafood Corporation on Second Avenue in Murray Hill in 1880. His grandmother’s side had the New York fishmonger Bono Fish.

Today, Top Catch processes 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of squid a day. “We fully clean it and cut it into rings and tentacles,” says Licata. The lion’s share is packaged as 2.5-pound bags sold to food service companies like Sysco and Restaurant Depot, as well as Safeway, Harris Teeter, Lowe’s and selected restaurant chains. (The blue and white Top Catch boxes have an illustration of a squid in top hat with a dandy’s cane.)

All of Top Catch’s product is sold in the States, and as the appetite for squid in America has soared over the last few decades, Top Catch has complemented the New York squid with imported product. But Licata prefers New York’s finest: “Here it’s a much higher-quality product. Overseas it’s a different ball game. Their squid isn’t boxed at sea, and there’s [as much as] a few extra days before it’s cleaned and frozen.”

Of course, an ingredient’s increasing demand on the international seafood market can be perilous for the species’ future health. But longfin squid appear to be weathering the larger harvests. “Squid grows fast and spawns a couple times a year,” says Hasbrouck, the Cornell biologist. Because squid aren’t apex predators on the food chain, they are low in toxins like mercury. There are other marine scientists who hypothesize that the success of squid is evidence of larger things gone awry in the seas: As we’ve decimated populations of squid predators such as sharks, tuna and other big fish like cod, squid have multiplied. Nonetheless, marine scientists, in part because longfin squid reproduce quickly, regard it as one of the most resilient seafoods. Squid’s time has come.

Squid is our true “indigenous fish,” says Dave Pasternack, the pescatorially minded chef at Esca, and a lifelong avid fisherman. “Even more than shad, since it’s the bottom of the local food chain and everything from bluefish to striped bass to flounder depends on squid.” (In fact, as testament to its keystone role in the marine food web, squid plays the part of both predator and prey: squid will prey on juvenile bluefish and porgies only to be consumed by adult bluefish and porgies later in life.) Now eateries across all price-points depend on squid as well, from Cantonese diners with Chinese-only menus to the latest downtown hotspot.

At Esca, chef Pasternack will stuff the tubes with black rice darkened from squid ink, grill them whole and finish with chili oil. Or fry tiny squid from Maine and toss them with arugula. Or marinate larger New York squid with chili pepper, lemon zest and rosemary before grilling it whole. Or, in a Galician preparation, leave the ink sack in, cook the whole squid in black steel and serve with lemon sauce. He points out two common mistakes with squid: overcooking, and overlooking the legs. “Think about how many times you’ve had some basic fried calamari and it’s rubbery, the breading is not right and they only give you bodies,” he says. “To me, the tentacles are the most important part, the best part.”

While some aficionados say winter meat makes the best calamari rings, fish mongers like Citarella, or Greenmarket fishermen like the North Fork–based Alex Villani of Blue Moon Fish, say the flesh of summer spawning squid goes perfectly with a squeeze of lemon and a chaser of Long Island rosé. And at $3.50 a pound retail, uncleaned squid is one-seventh the price of salmon or swordfish. Think of squid as kind of like the kale of the sea: hardy, available year round, economical and delicious.

It’s also inherently flexible in the kitchen, and takes well to everything from boiling to frying to grilling.

“From a practical perspective, it’s cheap and it sells,” says chef Jason Weiner, who captains Almond restaurant and L&W Oyster Co. “It’s $2.50 a pound [wholesale] and 90 percent yield.” In contrast, fish can be several times that price, and unless you serve it whole, you might serve only half of the weight you bought from your supplier. “It’s also versatile and comfortable in the context of a bunch of different culinary idioms. You can obviously throw it in one of those Ligurian or Provençal fisherman’s stews that everyone loves. But it’s also great in an udon or a bibimbap, let’s say. Of course, cleaning it is not much fun, but what are you gonna do?”

Chef Alex Raij of Txikito, La Vara and El Quinto Pino says Blue Moon’s Long Island squid is spectacular, and shows it off in dishes like her txipiron en cebollado, squid ribbons with sweet onion and pine nuts simmered in the squid’s own juices. Raij says that while she buys imported for certain hard-to-find Spanish and Basque ingredients (like anchovies), all the squid on her menus is local. “I can actually buy Spanish squid here for pretty much same price as the local squid, and I don’t.”

Citarella, one of the largest buyers of New York seafood, only sells longfin squid caught in New York and nearby states. During times of abundance, the store hand-cleans and freezes squid to sell in the slower months, rather than offer imports. “You’re not getting any better product from anywhere in the world,” says owner Joseph Gurrera.

Despite the squid’s robust lifecycle, longfin squid — like all fisheries — is finite. Even at a time when the New York metro area alone would gladly consume two or five times the current catch, the catch has declined by nearly 25 percent over the last decade, partly because the high fuel bills associated with chasing squid offshore has caused some boats to fish less for squid and more for whiting or porgie. “Nowadays the trips are so long compared to years ago,” says Grimm. “Years ago we fished two, three days. We’re staying out longer because there’s not as many squid and bigger capacity in boat. They’re still there, but not as thick as they used to be.”

Even at a reduced size, squid remains one of the top catches in the state. “It’s what’s keeping the trawl fishery going here on Long Island,” says Cornell’s Hasbrouck. The squid population supports 20 or 30 boats, and perhaps 100 fishermen. As some fish, such as flounder and cod, have remained low, catches of squid and whiting (which most squid boats also catch) still come in the millions of pounds.

There is some hope among fishers and others that the government will raise the quotas that boats have generally been bumping up against in recent years. The industry has also demonstrated quick responsiveness in the interest of managing the fishery. As butterfish, an overfished species, started showing up in squid nets in larger numbers, the Montauk fleet worked with Cornell Extension to test a variety of ways to keep butterfish out of their nets, thus keeping the squid fishery open. If the squid fishers help rebuild butterfish populations, they may end up able to sell that species, too.

Though American demand for squid is several times what we catch, some still gets exported. And as fish processing increasingly shifts overseas, there are even stories of Atlantic squid boats selling their catch — uncleaned and frozen in blocks — to brokers who ship it overseas to be thawed and cleaned and then sent out to points around the globe. “It’s a worldwide market now,” explains Cornell’s Hasbrouck, who adds that longfin squid from the North Atlantic is top-grade. “Good-quality squid is in demand throughout the world.”

For Gurrera of Citarella, New Yorkers who don’t seek out local squid are missing out. A few years ago, Gurrera was in Milan and passed by a fishmonger whose crates overflowed with fresh catch from the Mediterranean. Among the sardines, anchovies and octopus, he noticed a block of frozen squid sitting unboxed. Gurrera asked the fishmonger where the squid was from, and the aproned Italian returned with the box. “It was New York squid. The box said Cape May, New Jersey.”

Brian Halweil is the editor of Edible East End. He likes his squid grilled. 

Photo credit:Gina Marie Santucci & Rebecca McAlpin
Print credit: Annie Sessler, [email protected]

 

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Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.