The Assholes of the Sea

When I heard my therapist tell me Madonna was a marine biologist the other week, I was surprised to say the very least. We’d been discussing sea urchins because they happened to be the topic currently taking up too much space in my head that day. It was good to know she had another career to fall back on in her later years, but the idea seemed unlikely. I asked him to repeat his statement, just to be sure.

“I said my daughter was a marine biologist,” he dittoed. I was glad for his offspring, but disappointed for Ms. Ciccone. I explained my initial confusion and he laughed. The conversation stalled for a few seconds, during which time I realized that a) we were both taking a moment to imagine the pop star with an advanced science degree and a wetsuit and b) I was the sort of person who hears only what he wants to hear, at least the first time around.

I had developed a craving for urchin over the holidays that remained unsated for weeks. And when I say “craving”, I suppose I mean “had the urge to destroy as many of these terrible echinoderms as I possible within the confines of my rather limited current budget.” I popped around the corner to Swan’s Oyster Depot– I knew they had them from time to time, but was told it was only an occasional item. I called a few other places around town and the answer was always roughly this: “Yes, we get them in sometimes whenever anyone feels like diving for them.” Why, I wondered, weren’t divers out in force scooping up these creatures en masse? I was certain the answer had more to do with the combined forces of weather and economics than general laziness on the part of the harvesters. Still, I was frustrated. And a bit peckish for uni– the silken, tongue-shaped roe of the urchin. The thought of them made me rather homesick for my former restaurant alma mater.

We sold fresh sea urchin at Kokkari whenever the season and our chef’s inclination to serve it coincided, which was always. I loved describing its preparation to my guests. “We crack them open while they’re still alive,” I’d tell them, my eyes wide as I pictured a pantry cook caught in the violent act. “We put them on top of a bowl full of ice and serve them raw with just a little drizzle of olive oil and some lemon. The spines are still wriggling as you scoop out the roe.” Not everyone was moved by my straightforward– if vivid– descriptions of specials at the restaurant. I once described a dish called kokoretsi to a table of twelve as “goat guts on a stick”. A few people looked horrified, but I sold three of them on the spot. The squeamish never order the out-of-the-ordinary, so I prefer to paint a picture with as few words as possible. It’s a quick way to assess who’s an adventurous eater and who orders the chicken. It was the same with the urchin.

One lunchtime, as the mad gallop of Friday service slowed to a canter, I described the dish in my usual way to two women. One of them, who ordered a glass of crisp Santorini assyrtiko made her excitement immediately known. “Oh yes!” she ejaculated, “Urchins are assholes! You know they’re destroying kelp beds which is terrible for sea otters and I love otters,” she said to her rosé-drinking lunching partner, who seemed dubious. “We should be eating as many of those fuckers as we can.” She then took a breath and apologized to me for her language. There was no need because I was already in love. I simply smiled and said that, thanks to her, I would forever think of sea urchins as “the assholes of the sea”. Miss Santorini once again looked at her friend and asked, “Shall we?” The rosé drinker, not wanting to appear anti-otter, assented.

A few minutes later, I returned to them with one of the giant purple urchins, lobotomized and spines writhing, and placed it in the middle of their little two-top. I squeezed a wedge of lemon over the exposed roe and suggested they scoop it out and spread it over the bread provided. “I’ve never eaten an asshole before,” she confessed, realizing what she had just said as soon as she had said it.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” I answered. “Just be gentle. I’m sure you’ll be wanting a bit of privacy.” And with that, I quietly left the table, pleased by the thought that, because of my efforts, one more asshole in the world had been well and truly licked.

About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
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