Dissecting dinner before it dissects you


Partner and I ate at Outback Steakhouse on Sunday. I don’t care if you think this is bourgeois or not; the food is excellent, and reasonably priced, and I get a kick out of pretending that Tex-Mex food is really Australian grub.



Partner was feeling his inner cowboy and ordered a whole mess of ribs. I was more ladylike, and ordered the Outback Special: a nice little steak and a bunch of king-crab legs. My plate, when it arrived, looked like a prop from science-fiction movie, piled high with nightmarish alien body parts. Partner grinned and handed me a shiny metal thing that looked like an instrument of torture. “Get crackin’,” he said.



I do not mind this too much – I’m a farm boy, I grew up eating with my hands and a pocket knife – but I like it better when someone does the operating for me. I’m messy, for one thing. I was a regular geyser of melted butter and little bits of crabshell the other night; they probably had to call Stanley Steemer to clean the booth after I got done.



My friend Apollonia doesn’t like to dissect things at the table either. “Crab?” she said. “When they give you that stupid hammer and pliers? That’s for chumps. Somebody should be able to smash up your crab for you, back in the kitchen.”



Littleneck clams and oysters I can handle easily; they’re tedious, but they taste good. Mussels I adore, especially with garlic and tomato, and lots of bread to sop up the fragrant broth. Lobster I like okay, but only if someone has already dismantled the monster and put the meat in a nice little dish for me, with maybe some cracker crumbs on top.



And, well, speaking of mussels: usually hereabouts they give you Prince Edward Island mussels, which are small but succulent. Back in June, however, while we were on Cape Cod, I ordered a bowl of mussels marinara. They arrived in something like a tureen; each mussel-shell was the size of a souvenir ashtray, and the mussels themselves – while very good – were, um, big. And maybe a little gelatinous. The flavor was terrific, but the texture . . . um.



And, long ago while in Puerto Rico, I ordered a nice paella which promised a nice selection of mariscos. Ay yi yi! Along with the expected fish and conch, here was a tiny starfish. And over there: the most darling baby octopus, about the size of your thumb!



Never let it be said that I don’t clean my plate, however.



Starfish: a little chewy. Not much flavor.



Octopus: bright, fishy, interesting.



But did it have to be a baby?



Its mother is probably still out there somewhere, looking for me.



So it’s probably a good idea for me to keep my hammer and pliers handy . . .




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