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.