The Complex Costs of Calamari

Every time I get near the Central California Coast, I try to arrange a side trip to Cambria by the Sea. It is a beautiful little town, though rather too “touristy” these days. And, of course, the beauty of the seacoast is a major draw for this ol’ California Jubilado. But it is one simple fact that draws me to Cambria more than all the rest. The Sea Chest Oyster Bar has the best calamari in the world! The world as I have experienced it anyway. Yet, all the Costs of Calamari are greater than the price of the meal.

Anyone who enjoys seafood knows that ordering Calamari is a haphazard proposition in most restaurants, even the “best” (expensive) ones. Nearly always, you get a plate of those little deep-fried breaded rings and tentacles. They may be tender or tough, or even downright rubbery, whatever the price. I was unequivocally shocked when, during my inadvertent adventure in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a waitress delivered a large plate of calamari strips I had bravely ordered for an appetizer. We quickly learned that they serve huge portions of everything in “T or C,” and all the people are above average…weight. Out in the middle of the southern New Mexico desert, I tasted Calamari that was in my top ten ever. I was surprised that I got strips, not rings and tentacles. They were amazingly tender and tasty. More can sometimes be better.

Best Dinner

However, the calamari strips or steaks at the Sea Chest in Cambria are clearly number one. According to Steve, who has cooked there forever, they buy their Calamari from a fishing outfit somewhere in the western Pacific. Those squid must be huge. Once tenderized and lightly breaded, the steaks range to ten inches across and about a quarter inch thick.

Calamari.SteakWatching the cooks behind the Sea Chest Oyster Bar is an entertainment in itself. They prepare everything on industrial grade high-fire stoves, mostly in large pans and pots. Scallops, halibut, crab legs, whatever, it is all fresh and delicious. A Sea Chest calamari steak is a meal in itself, so tender you can cut it effortlessly with a fork. It is lightly breaded and sautéed in butter to a golden brown. The action at the stoves among the five or six cooks is a study of efficiently orchestrated motion as they weave their motions in the small space between the prep counter behind the bar and the stoves at the back wall.

“External” Costs

So, there I was the next morning recovering from calamari overload, a once in a few years delight. Yet I wondered what the real costs of this extravaganza might be. Sure, we know that the restaurant incorporates various materials (calamari, butter, etc.), labor, rent, supplies, power, equipment maintenance, and overhead in the price of its dishes. The costs of extraction from the western Pacific, shipping, refrigeration, etc., go into the price tag as well. However, as with so many of the production processes of industrial society, the so-called “externalities” of such supply chains are not part of the equation.

I might find it difficult to calculate easily the global carbon emissions from the entire chain of energy consumption from extraction to consumption and waste in the ‘calamari trade.’ The costs of calamari were not all reflected in the price of the meal. I did not waste any of my dinner; it was too good, so I had my leftovers for breakfast. Yet, if I could calculate the external costs, how much of the $29- price of my fantastic meal would reflect the damage done to the planet?

Not much, if any, I suspect. If all the costs of the Calamari trade were included in the price of a meal, I doubt that I would ever afford to eat a calamari steak again. We must recognize that even with the best of policies responding to the converging crises of the early twenty-first century, life will not be the same. We must shape it anew. For more on carbon emissions and the costs of affluence, see other posts on www.thehopefulrealist.com.