By Daniel Engber|
A friend told me the other day that she’d heard a horrifying report on public radio: You know those deep-fried, chewy rings of calamari? Sure. Well, they’re sometimes served in imitation form, made from slices of a pig’s rectum. Wait … what?! And so it happened second-hand, as these things almost always do: An urban legend hatched and spread its wings.
My friend had heard the story from radio producer Ben Calhoun, who put it in his segment for the Jan. 11 episode of This American Life. You should go listen: It’s not an expose but a charming, funny paean to the hog bung. (More on that in a bit.) Calhoun doesn’t really think that buttholes have surfed into our seafood—”If I had to bet money on whether it’s happening [in the U.S.], I would absolutely bet money that it’s not,” he told me earlier this week—but his reporting in the piece did leave some tiny room for doubt, and that margin of uncertainty, the implied what if that was central to his piece, provides a blueprint for how a rumor gains the gloss of truth.
Where did the legend of the backdoor calamari come from, and why has it only just emerged? The story started in the classic way, with an email from a stranger. Calhoun heard it from a fan of This American Life who wrote in to say that she had heard it from a guy who worked in pork production. When Calhoun followed up, the farmer told him that he’d learned about faux mollusk from a guy he knows who manages a meat-processing plant. That manager, for his part, told Calhoun that he was 95 percent sure the claim was true, though he admitted that he’d never seen the fakes himself—he only knew of them from the people that he worked for at the plant. And while no one at the plant had ever seen a rectum packaged as a squid, employees there confirmed that they had heard the story, too.
There were no eyewitnesses at all, in fact, and all the other evidence was circumstantial: A recent activist report found signs of modest seafood fraud—one kind of fish mislabeled as another—and a taste test showed that switching rectums for calamari might indeed go undetected. Calhoun did not try to hide the weakness of his case: “Just to repeat one last time,” he said at the close of his radio script, “I have no proof that anyone, anywhere, has ever tried to pass off pork bung as calamari in a restaurant … ”
Still, not everyone took the piece with its intended whimsy. Some have now suggested that their fear of nasty pig parts might override their love of tentacles. (Never mind that hog bung is routinely used in making large-gauge sausages and liverwurst.) Others griped that This American Life had stooped to fearmongering. “We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Diane Pleschner-Steele, director of the California Wetfish Producers Association. Her counterpart in New Jersey, Greg DiDomenico of the Garden State Seafood Association, was less ambivalent: “It’s provocative, and it’s irresponsible,” he told me, “and it ultimately harms fishermen and consumers.”
DiDomenico even launched a fishy-sounding rumor of his own: “It’s a stunt to get publicity for the seafood traceability legislation,” he declared, referring to the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act—a bill that was introduced in Congress last summer but has yet to pass. The story on This American Life “leaves us pretty curious,” he said, adding that any of “several environmental groups” might be behind it. “It’s strangely interesting timing, coming right around the time that this legislation is being pushed.”
These reactions, positive or negative, tell us less about what we know than what we don’t. The food system is so opaque to most Americans that any rumor whatsoever—no matter how silly or improbable—can be blown across the landscape on the heavy winds of ignorance. Is rectum-calamari any less likely to exist than pink slime? If so, how could we ever know?
That’s precisely why the mystery of what we eat and how it’s made has become a factory for making myths. According to Jan Harold Brunvand, a folklorist at the University of Utah who has been cataloguing urban legends for more than 30 years, tales of contaminated food compose a major storytelling theme. In the 1970s, the most prominent of these accused McDonald’s of spiking hamburgers with mealworms and Bubble Yum of being made from spider parts. (As it happens, the worms might not be such a bad idea.)
Contamination legends are just as prevalent today. When McDonald’s Canada launched a transparency campaign last June, consumers posted spurious questions to the website. One wrote: “Is it true that you use lead paint in your muffins?” Another: “I heard that McDonald’s used instant potato mix in their strawberry milkshakes … is this true?” And more than one was moved to ask if McDonald’s still puts mealworms in its burgers.
What characterizes these stories and gives them such staying power? The imitation calamari offers up a nifty model of how these rumors spread; it gives us a chance to watch an urban legend in its embryonic form. On his website, Brunvand lays out some standard features of the rumor, each of which describes the hog-bung story on the nose.
First, it must be transmitted at each step through “a friend of a friend.” That’s how I came to this topic, after all: I heard about the bung from a friend, who got it from This American Life. The piece reveals that Calhoun heard it from a listener, who got it from a farmer. The farmer heard it from a meat processor, who got it from his bosses. And so on.
The legend must also have “a strong basic story-appeal”—some twist or resolution that makes it memorable. The genius of the calamari tale is in its central metaphor and the instant recognition that a puckered ring of squid might represent a puckered mammal’s anus. That’s not just gross; it’s diabolical and ingenious—the perfect twist for a perfect caper.
A legend doesn’t stick unless it has “a foundation in actual belief.” Contamination stories arise from our basic distrust of corporations, Brunvand has written, and a default belief that processed food is dangerous and unhealthy. That’s why so many of them accrue to fast-food restaurants—not just in the case of McWormburgers, but also with old-time legends like the Kentucky Fried Rat or the Mouse-in-a-Coke. (The latter dates back to the early 20th century.)
That focus on the culinary déclassé may be why the calamari legend has been so late to surface. I searched the Nexis database, but the only prior reference to butt-squid that I could find occurred in 2010 in an advice column for Deadspin: “My girlfriend’s brother is one of the leading swine veterinarians in the U.S.,” one reader wrote, “and last summer he informed me that imitation calamari is made from pig rectum.” (Notice the telltale friend-of-a-friend format.) That recent vintage makes more sense when you consider that calamari was not so long ago considered “haute cuisine.” In the late 1980s, fried squid appetizers were part of a new trend in American eating; now the dish is downmarket and mainstream—just the sort of lowbrow food that’s susceptible to folklore smears.
Brunvand’s third requirement is that a story has “a meaningful message or moral.” Contamination legends reveal a sense of guilt for relying too much on packaged, processed foods, he writes. In modern foodie circles, that feeling of disconnection is as urgent as it’s ever been. The radio segment sums up our lesson in a phrase: “It’s payback. It’s payback for our blissful ignorance about where our food comes from and how it gets to us.”
When Calhoun realized that he had no proof about the hog bung and that he wouldn’t ever find it—when he realized that it was, in effect, an urban legend—he chose to switch directions. “The piece got rechartered halfway through,” he told me. Instead of pitting the consumer against the industry, as urban legends tend to do, Calhoun cleverly chose to focus on the merits of the scrappy, crappy bung. He started rooting for the rectum. Here’s the turn as it showed up in the broadcast:
I realized that this is not a story about fraud. It’s not a bait-and-switch story. It’s a story about possibility. It’s classic rags to riches. It’s about whether a cut of meat—perhaps the lowliest, most malignable cut of meat in America—might somehow, in at least one place on the planet, be dipped in the redemptive oils of the great culinary equalizer that is the deep fryer. And it might emerge transformed, no longer an outcast, but instead hair combed, clean shaven, in a suit and tie. It might walk reborn onto a table. Through sheer force of resemblance, it might be loved. Its history, years of drudgery and hardship, doing the body’s least glamorous job, all washed away.
That is to say, Calhoun started with an unsubstantiated fraud, and then he deep-fried it into something else. He battered up a newborn urban legend and served it as the story of an underdog.
“I don’t want to deprive anybody of any kind of pleasure from something they enjoy,” he said this week, reflecting on the fact that in spite of this, some listeners might now be swearing off of calamari altogether. “I guess if somebody had made that decision, my initial feeling would be to feel sorry,” he continued. “Beyond that, I would hope that there would be some additional pleasure that they would have in the way they looked at the world.” No, he doesn’t think that hog bungs are really being served as squid. But, in a way, wouldn’t it be more exciting if they were?