BROOKLINE, Mass.—Let me put this in context so you don’t think I’m an idiot.
I like to read. I like words. I don’t shrink from difficult texts. I’ve read Ulysses, although I probably won’t reread it. I’ve labored through Paradise Lost. I was an English major, so they made us read Canterbury Tales in the original and doled out huge chunks of The Faerie Queene, requiring constant reference to a 16th-century dictionary. I relish the baroque prose of Faulkner and the acid verbal calisthenics of H.L. Mencken.
I can’t read menus.
Every couple of weeks I speak or perform somewhere, and my host will say, “Let me take you to this new restaurant everybody is talking about,” and two hours later I’ll say, “Is everybody talking about it because it has a menu that reads like fake foods served in a Dr. Seuss book?”
Let’s start with The Ravenous Pig.
Two weeks ago I’m in Orlando, and my colleague suggests we Uber over to Winter Park for a restaurant that gets rave reviews on the internet. I love barbecue, so yeah, The Ravenous Pig, cute name, let’s hit it.
I should have thought about it for ten seconds first. Because why is it a ravenous pig instead of a hungry pig? A name like The Hungry Pig or The Hungry Hog would imply fat slabs of pork, whereas The Ravenous Pig is a red flag indicating we’re entering the Neverland of Food Disinformation, like one of those episodes of Iron Chef where the guy with the bow tie says, “I’m impressed that the sriracha doesn’t overpower the wine-shallot reduction, but the pilaf is a bland choice.”
The first menu item that catches my eye at The Ravenous Pig is an appetizer called Charred Spanish Octopus.
Actually the menu said CHARRED SPANISH OCTOPUS in all caps, and then the ingredients were in lowercase, e.e. cummings-style, so that you couldn’t tell what was a proper noun and what was merely an obscure spice harvested in Moldova. This will be important later.
Charred Spanish Octopus is 17.
It’s not 17 dollars. There are never any dollar signs on a menu like this. If you were a newbie to the restaurant world and saw this menu, you might think, “Oh, they’re gonna call out the number 17 when it’s ready. This is so you don’t have to actually say the words ‘charred Spanish octopus’ since, after all, that would be humiliating. You can just say ‘I’ll have a number 17.’”
So my first question is, “Who invented the word char?”
Char and charred exist in only two places—forensic reports about arson, and menus. I used to know what it meant when Paul Prudhomme was cooking. You know why? Because he said blackened. It means blackened. This was useful information. It was a warning. When your food comes out, the surface is gonna be as black as Antarctica in June.
Char, on the other hand, is misdirection. There’s a fish called char, but it’s not remotely octopussy. And char has nothing to do with charcoal, which is why you should stop saying “char.” I do not want to associate my dinner with “charred remains.”
My next question is, “What makes the octopus Spanish? Did it have eight red bullfighter’s capes hanging over its tentacles? Does the restaurant serve octopi captured exclusively within the three-mile territorial limit of the coastline of Spain? Was it caught by a Colombian fishing boat, thereby touched only by Spanish-speakers? Is it prepared in some special way passed down by generations of Basque grandmothers? Would it taste different if it were, say, a Portuguese octopus?”
Perhaps we’ll get some clue from the ingredients, listed as:
leeks, black mission figs, pumpkin, orange, pepita brittle
(There are no periods on hipster menus.)
Even though I have no idea what “pepita brittle” is, pepita sounds vaguely Spanish.
I know what you’re thinking.
“You could Google it.”
I refuse to Google it. I’m not gonna be constantly extracting my phone from my pocket so I can Google-search the contents of my meal.
But in the interests of expanding my universe, I’ll Google it now: It’s the Spanish word for “hulled green pumpkin seeds.” Pepitas are hulled green pumpkin seeds, and pepita brittle is when you make the pumpkin seeds congeal together in a syrupy concoction normally intended as a dessert, like peanut brittle. So it’s peanut brittle except instead of peanuts we’re using pumpkin seeds.
So it could have been called pumpkin seed brittle, which would make sense given that “pumpkin” is another ingredient. But they chose pepita brittle because the octopus is Spanish.
And yet none of the ingredients have anything to do with octopus. They all sound like plate decoration for the blackened octopus of Hispanic extraction. The only possible clue to the taste of the dish is “black mission figs.”
Okay, so, are the figs black? Or do they come from a black mission? “Black mission” actually has all kinds of dramatic culinary possibilities. They could be figs grown on the property of a Catholic mission in Africa, figs sold by the outreach program of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or figs supplied by Satan worshippers who have taken over the old ruins of the San Buenaventura Mission of the Okefenokee. Or perhaps said figs were obtained during a black mission: Special-ops guys scaled the wall of Bashar Assad’s orchard. Or perhaps they were harvested and shipped by the Black Mission Fig Company of Santiago de Compostela. We can’t be sure because the menu is opposed to capitalization. Is it a mission fig that’s black or a Black Mission fig that’s a normal fig color?
So many questions. So many mysteries. And this, I think, is the whole point. The only reason I would order Charred Spanish Octopus is because the importunate waiter with the upbeat list of even more mysterious ingredients would answer the question “What is this?” with something on the order of “So delicious, one of our favorite appetizers—the slightly sweet brittle offsets the seafood aura. I tried it this morning and it was perfect.”
And so, confused but impressed, like a soybean farmer sitting in the front row of a Lenny Bruce concert, you go, “Uh, yeah, okay, fine, give me that and the chardonnay.”
Or you can do what I do: order the burger. There’s always a burger.