Is imitation calamari made from pig rectum? A charming urban legend gets its start.
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?