Every once in a while, I’ll encounter a piece of writing that will nettle down deep inside my mind and stay there. After enough time passes, I begin to grow around these words until they become part of the structure of my identity, like the fence that has been encased by a living tree trunk. In high school, it was a version of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In college, it was John Donne’s scientifically accurate metaphysical analogies to his emotional life and Emerson’s “Self Reliance.” And, completely unexpectedly, in the last five years, it was an article published in the Fall 2012 edition of Gastronomica, “Swimming with Spears” by Tetshiko Endo.
This article did a serious number on me, and I’ve thought about it several times a week since I first read it back in 2012. The author writes about spear fishing, about hunting and killing his dinner in the alien world of the ocean, a place where the author could just as easily become prey himself.
To dive beneath the surface of the sea is to confront a power and immensity like none other on this earth. In the belly of such a thing, it is impossible not to know, or understand on some level, the inherent fragility and meanness of one’s own existence. When death is this tangible, it’s clear that only the slightest of fate’s serendipities separates you from the creature dangling off the end of your spear.
Three times Tetshiko Endo describes either the world beneath the surface or the creatures who inhabit it that eventually as “otherworldly.” Because it is another world. The creatures who live there that we end up eating are aliens.
In the mind of the Western diner, there is perhaps no food so divorced from its natural, living appearance as the fish. How many people can identify a herring while it is still swimming? …There are, of course, some things one is better off not knowing such as the true appearance of a monkfish or, worse, that of the merrily named nightmare the John Dory.
And then, a few weeks ago, a beautiful boy threw down a culinary challenge to cook the most horrifying seafood the Korean market had to offer. He named it Terror of the Sea. We gathered assorted claws and appendages and shells, and I steamed it all in white wine, mirin, miso, ginger, red chili pepper, sesame seed oil, and soy sauce.
I need to know what’s beneath the surface… And so we search, down among the ‘unspeakable foundation’ not for sunken galleon or Spanish doubloons, but for delicious sea creatures that shimmer in the ice of the seafood case.
Tetsuhiko Endo descends into the depths of the ocean to hunt his dinner in an unfamiliar world. He sees the world these alien creatures belong to. For me, just visiting the seafood section and seeing all the alien creatures on display is enough to shock me out of whatever gastronomic comfort zone I weave for myself out of edible leaves and potatoes and birds.
[The sea] remains a place of monsters, real and imagined- though these are often indistinguishable from each other. Homer’s Scylla, for example, was a twelve-armed, shoal-sized [female] leviathan of pure fiction, but the ten-tentacled giant squid is estimated to reach forty feet, and it battles sperm whales at depths that would crush many submarines.
There is a boundary, a surface, that not many penetrate. The boundary between the sunlit lands of consciousness, and the dark, watery realm of the subconscious. Living things occupy both worlds, living beings that we eat.
To grope down into the bottom of the sea after [the creatures]; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing.
–me, quoting Tetsuhiko Endo, quoting Herman Melville