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The Rise of Calamari, Fueled by Rhode Island’s Dirty Politics

By S.E. Cupp
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos by Getty

On May 10, 1974, Paul Kalikstein turned in his Master thesis at the Alfred P. Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a graduate student in Management Science. The title was succinct: “The Marketability of Squid.”

The abstract for the 108-page thesis read:

The current trends of seafood supply shortages and price hikes have made government and industry people look at new seafood species in order to fulfill the increasing domestic demand for the ocean’s products. One of the more promising species for use as a human food product is squid. While squid is eaten in many areas of the world, it has gained very little acceptance in the U.S. market. Some strong negative attitudes towards squid persist among American consumers. This work attempts to determine the market potential for three processed squid products which were developed at M.I.T.: a squid chowder, a squid cocktail, and fried squid rings. Market research, aimed at estimating the potential trial and repeat purchase rates for these squid products, was conducted in the Boston metropolitan area. The results show that while repeat purchase would be high, trial purchase would be extremely low (due to the strong negative attitudes towards squid held by the American consumer). Combining these results with the characteristics of the seafood industry, a conclusion of not introducing these products onto the domestic market was reached. However, during the course of the research, certain interesting possibilities in the export of squid to Europe and in new product concepts were uncovered. (My emphasis.)

Kalikstein’s research was an attempt at solving the plummeting stocks of traditional seafood resources due to overfishing and overbuying in the 1960s and ’70s. Scientists and fishermen alike started looking for a new source of food, to alleviate the burden on other popular stocks.

Federal sea grant programs gave researchers like Kalikstein and others opportunities to devise new approaches to serving squid to squeamish Western audiences. Universities that had made their reputations pioneering advances in biochemistry, astrophysics and neurology now had their scientists trying to tweak American taste buds—with very little success.

Soon, that would change.

Forty years later and 55 miles south, Rhode Island State Representative Joseph McNamara had suddenly found himself in high demand.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello had handpicked the 64-year-old, longtime Democratic official from District 19 in the Providence suburbs of Warwick and Cranston to become the next chair of the state’s Democratic Party.

McNamara grew up in Warwick and played football at Pilgrim High School, where actor-turned-Twitter-agitator James Woods was just a couple years older. He came from a family of hardened Democrats.

When he was little, the Republican incumbent for the Ward 2 Council seat, Walter Richardson, drove through his Lakewood neighborhood handing out free ice cream. McNamara knew better than to take anything from a Republican before asking his Democrat father. Lessons about party loyalty started young.

Now, on the night of October 9, 2014, during a meeting at the Cranston Portuguese Club, the state Democratic committee rewarded all those years of devotion by choosing McNamara in a unanimous vote party chairman.

As things tend to go in the rough environs of Rhode Island politics, the events leading up to McNamara’s rise to the top were a little more Coppola than Capra.

For starters, the former party chairman, Rep. David Caprio, had resigned in disgrace over the summer, just 24 hours after it was revealed that the police were investigating his contract bid to run the concessions at three state beaches, which he coincidentally had his friend, fellow state Rep. Peter Palumbo, managing.

Before Caprio’s resignation, McNamara had helped line up the votes for Mattiello to become the new Speaker after federal agents raided the office and East Side home of then-Speaker Gordon Fox. That was in alleged connection to the state’s probe of former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s failed videogame company—and Rhode Island’s $75 million boondoggle to headquarter it in Providence.

Such was life in Rhode Island state politics—an endless revolving door of corruption and incompetence. McNamara had managed to sidestep—and ultimately benefit from—both, leading him to this very moment.

It didn’t hurt that he was fresh off an unexpected, slightly odd—some might even say preposterous—legislative victory that was meant to change the state’s embattled economy forever.

Just a year earlier, in 2013, Lou Mazzucchelli had described Rhode Island as “Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard: Still attractive given her age, but almost completely delusional.” Others less eloquently referred to Rhode Island’s economy as “fucked.”

Mazzucchelli, a Brown University visiting scholar, Rhode Island native and businessman had been trying to assess how the small state—“which was always a lot parochial and a little shady, but had managed to get by”—became an economic “Bizarro World” over a quarter century, and pegged its decline to a number of systemic and repeating problems, including a prominent lack of outside money.

“We can all sell each other houses, Del’s lemonade, and clam cakes,” he said. “But the pie can’t grow unless more capital comes into the system.”

In 2013, Rhode Island ranked 45 out of 50 states in economic outlook, according to an annual “Rich States, Poor States” report by economist Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Jonathan Williams. It was down from 43 the previous year.The 2008 recession hit Rhode Island particularly hard, and its growth, still struggling, was slower than the New England and national economies. Yet Rhode Island’s economic problems started much earlier.

The tiny state has had a disastrous history of trying to attract outside revenue. It targeted a business, or an industry, offered glamorous (and totally unsustainable) deals to lure them across the border, and then, as Lou Mazzucchelli said, “the target business either fails or remains only until the Rhode Island benefits run out, then seeks greener pastures.”

Curt Schilling’s doomed video game company was one of several notable examples. Instead of fixing the tax system or addressing other systemic problems, Rhode Island ran this clunky model on repeat.

Then there was the brain drain.

Through Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, University of Rhode Island, and Johnson & Wales, the state earns top dollars from tuition and students, but it loses around 80 percent of its private college graduates every year—and 56 percent of its public college graduates—to states with better job markets.

And finally, there was state politics.

Democrats essentially swept Republicans out of power back as 1934—in a feat referred to as the “Bloodless Revolution”—and Republicans have struggled to return to power in the legislature ever since.

At any given time, there could be as few as two or three Republican members of the 75-seat House of Representatives. In 2014, there were a formidable six. And in Rhode Island, even the few Republicans usually sound and awful lot like Democrats.

Former Governor Lincoln Chafee understood this well. He managed to survive for years as a Republican, but a liberal one, frequently ranking as “the least conservative” member in the Senate. He was the only Republican Senator to vote against the war in Iraq. He is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-gun control, and anti-death penalty. In other words, the perfect Rhode Island “Republican.”

When he ran for Governor in 2007, he made the necessary calculation to quit the Republican Party and run as an Independent, becoming the first to win the State House since 1790. By the time 2013 rolled around, being Independent was no longer good enough and he became a Democrat, finally embracing the reality of Rhode Island politics. Ironically, though, he ended his re-election bid after finding the Democratic primary field too crowded. In 2016 he ran an ill-fated, often-mocked campaign for the White House that The Atlantic writer Molly Ball said “stood out for its utter pointlessness.”

With the total consolidation of power within the Democratic Party, Rhode Island politics has long been dominated by interparty squabbles, elbow-throwing, corruption, nepotism, and cronyism. Without a healthy second party to keep Democrats in check, they’d been left to keep circulating the same stale ideas for decades.

Add to this the fact that a disproportionate number of Rhode Island lawmakers were public employees, union employees and non-profit workers, with little representation from the private sector, and it’s no wonder the state couldn’t get out of its own way to break its endless cycle of stagnation.

Part of what Paul Kalikstein’s research on the marketability of squid found in 1974 was that its unappetizing presentation was only the first problem with making it a household staple in American dining rooms. The second problem was cleaning it.

Separating squid from its skin and its ink, removing the head, eyes, viscera and backbone, is time-consuming and highly involved. Six years after Kalikstein’s paper, UC-Davis professor R. Paul Singh and junior development engineer Daniel E. Brown published a research paper in Marine Fisheries Review, outlining their attempts at rectifying this problem: building a “squid skinning and eviscerating system” to make all of that easier—and less icky.

“Despite its excellent food value,” they argued, “a North American market for squid is virtually non-existent. The appearance of whole squid is unappetizing to many in the market place… the average consumer does not know how to clean or prepare whole squid for consumption. Seafood restaurants serving squid find the demand low and the hand-cleaning costs high. Hand cleaning adds $1.50 to $2.00/pound to the price of squid for the restaurateur.”

Their solution was an unwieldy, but impressive contraption that looked more like The Machine from “The Princess Bride” than something that would prepare food. It yielded almost 50 percent edible meat (slightly less than hand cleaning); removed ink sacks from frozen samples without much ink release (not so of unfrozen samples, however); and processed four squid per minute.

But the pilot-scale machine was hardly space-efficient, taking up the space of an industrial walk-in freezer.

With problems like these, it is a wonder squid ever got onto a menu.

But with an influx of immigrants from Asian countries, slow and steady word of mouth, and a surrender to manual cleaning the food source started to take off.

In 1980, when it was still considered exotic, the India Jose Restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, took a chance and launched the First International Calamari Festival. By 1987, the restaurant was featuring four to six calamari dishes a night, with a special table at the back reserved for a live squid cleaner, much like the cigar rollers that often display their talents at Cuban restaurants .

With virtually no sales of squid in the ’70s, by 1989 127 million pounds had sold nationwide, according to the American Institute of Food Distributors, Inc. By 1994, squid sales were up to 215 million pounds.

Calamari, as everyone who’s been to a white tablecloth Italian restaurant or a TGIFridays knows, eventually became as ubiquitous on menus as chicken. The New York Times has even used its meteoric rise in popularity back in the ’80s to create an index for measuring food trends, called the “Fried Calamari Index.” The time it takes for a food item—say, quiche, pesto, hummus, quinoa, kale—to go from total obscurity to mainstream mania is denoted as one Standard Calamari unit. In the case of the namesake unit, it took about 16 years, as measured by the rise in the number of mentions “fried calamari” or “fried squid” in The New York Times.

Few states know of the now-insatiable demand for squid better than Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island squid-fishing fleet is the largest on the East Coast, accounting for about 54 percent of all the squid landings in the Northeast. It takes in nearly 17.5 million pounds of squid landings per year, valued at $18 million, making it hugely profitable, especially considering the after-catch profits for seafood processors, dealers, and restaurants throughout the state.

Take Camille’s on Federal Hill, one of many popular restaurants in Providence’s Italian section. Camille’s sold 641 calamari appetizers at $15 each in three months in 2013. Over a year, that comes to nearly $40,000 off of one appetizer dish.

At Mike’s Kitchen at the VFW in Cranston, Chef Mike Lepizzera buys between 300 and 400 pounds of squid a week, at five dollars a pound—and that healthy return ends up at local processors like Sea Fresh USA and then back on dinner tables in Rhode Island and around the country.

The squid industry is so valuable to the Rhode Island economy, in fact, that the Port of Galilee, home to the nation’s largest squid-fishing fleet, secured a $2.9 million grant from the US Economic Development Administration to modernize and boost the state’s fishing infrastructure. North Carolina had Big Tobacco; Iowa had Big Ethanol; Rhode Island had Big Squid.

In late 2012, Rep. Joseph McNamara was in the midst of a deep and contentious debate. His friend was insisting that the quahog, a clam so ubiquitous in Rhode Island that Seth MacFarlane set his animated sitcom Family Guy in the fictional town of the same name, was so good it could be the official state appetizer. Only, there wasn’t such a thing.

After going back and forth about clams, McNamara and his friend agreed that the squid fishing industry was more important to the state’s economy—and even the nation.

“So you mean we’re the calamari capital of the country?” McNamara asked. As the alliterative catchphrase rolled off his tongue, it sounded too good to the politician’s ear. He had an idea: “We’re going to give you a state appetizer,” he said.

In February 2013, McNamara’s office sent out a press release.

“So much of what we hear or read about Rhode Island is negative,” he said in the statement. “We need to start promoting the good and wonderful things about our state. And while squid may make some people squeamish, we should be boasting about the fact that Rhode Island is the East Coast capital of squid, and that our style of preparing it is being used by chefs across the country. Even Guy Fieri has a recipe for it.”

The proposed legislation would name Rhode Island Calamari the state’s official appetizer. If the idea sounded stupid, there was even, McNamara said, a study proving how popular a calamari campaign would be.

“For those who might say this is frivolous, I can only say that it’s important for our state to boast about its strengths, to market its many positives. In fact, a study done by Cornell University a few years ago found that 72 percent of Rhode Island commercial fisherman would welcome a state seafood marketing campaign.” There you had it: Science.

As unserious, and therefore innocuous, as the idea sounded, it would prove to be unexpectedly—even comically, at times—controversial.

There is little Rhode Islanders are more proud of (and particular about) than their local foodstuffs. And the public was quick to weigh in.

Will Collette was co-editor of Progressive Charlestown, which offered a “fresh, sharp look at news, life and politics, in Charlestown, Rhode Island.”

“I like fried calamari a lot,” he said. “But certainly not as the state’s Official Appetizer… Clam cakes are one of the few things that will make me cheat on my diabetes control diet. They’re worth risking my life for.”

On the other side was Samuel G. Howard, a self-proclaimed “native-born Rhode Islander… political junkie and a pessimistic optimist,” who wrote a post in defense of the bill for RIFuture.org.

His defense went beyond his love of state and squid to represent the undeniable duality of every Rhode Islander personality—a slightly self-loathing disgust of the state’s more embarrassing political episodes, and a defensive pride in all things small, and less small, that emanate from the enclave’s 1,214 square miles.

“Now, a few sad-sacks have tried to turn this into some kind of demonstration of an out-of-touch Rhode Island legislature that’s more concerned with frivolous legislation than jobs building,” he wrote.

“But it’s also a fun bill… This is a legislature that is notoriously thin-skinned and unable to openly laugh at its foibles.

“So yes, you can deride this as ‘feel-good’ legislation. But frankly, do you want Rhode Island to feel bad all the time? And if you do, what’s wrong with you?”

Kevin Durfee, whose family has owned Narragansett’s 500-seat waterfront restaurant George’s of Galilee since 1948, worried about prices skyrocketing.

“I think that if there is an economic effect, it will be in the form of increased demand for local squid from other parts of the country or world pushing up prices. We will all end up paying more for this delicious local seafood,” he told Providence Journal’s Gail Ciampa.

Many local Quahogers were pissed, too, complaining that clams were getting the short end of the stick. McNamara talked to the heads of Rhode Island’s Quahogers and shell fishermen’s associations and went through the both the numbers and the politics.

“We’ve already recognized the Quahog in a very prominent way,” he told them. “Everyone knows the Quahog is our official state shellfish. This recognizes another industry, which is our largest and most successful commercial fishing landing.”

The soothing words worked, he said. “They understood. They got it.”

Of course, the few Republicans in the state legislature were far less open-minded.

“Congratulations, Rep. McNamara. This is really worthwhile legislation,” said State Rep. Joseph Trillo of Warwick. “If we are going to be ridiculed for anything, I think this is the one.”

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry of North Smithfield sarcastically quipped, “We’ve known since January that this is the year of improving Rhode Island’s economy, and this bill is clearly central to the Democratic economic development agenda.”

Republican state Senator Dawson Hodgson started referring to McNamara as the “Calamari Chairman” in the press. “Of course, there was a ton of sarcasm, and a lot of cynics out there,” he said. “I’ve been an elected official for a long time so I know sometimes you have to take the lumps. ‘Why is he passing this when we have so many employment issues, the second highest unemployment rate in the nation?’ My response was very simple: the thing we have to do better is promote our positive attributes in our state and build on industries that are successful. And although squid fishing is not a glamorous industry, it’s an important one for our economy.”

As for Hodgson, “[he] says a lot more than his prayers,” McNamara said. “But the fact of the matter is, he voted for the bill. So he’s allowed to say whatever he wants. I’m thankful for his vote.”

Having shored up enough support, by the end of March, 2013, McNamara felt the bill was ready for a hearing before the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare, which he chaired.

He knew how to put on a show. He invited local squid processor Chris Lee of Sea Fresh USA to testify to the importance of squid to the Rhode Island economy. He had local chef Dean Scanlon of L’Attitude restaurant in Pawtuxet Village cater fresh fried calamari to legislators. McNamara was quick to point out that Scanlon’s food and time were donated, assuring the committee there was no “squid pro quo.”

At the hearing, Providence Journal food editor and restaurant critic Gail Ciampa, a Rhode Island celebrity, live tweeted some of the more memorable moments like a court reporter in the middle of the trial of the century.

That night, there were no dissenting opinions, and McNamara left feeling sanguine.

Exactly three months later, on June 28, the bill passed the House by a vote of 63 to 3. With one more hurdle to clear in the Senate, McNamara considered the bill a fait accompli.

But when the bill came up for a vote, it was one of the last items on the Senate’s calendar. As the minutes ticked by, the Senate addressed other items. And then they departed for the night—and the year—leaving the calamari bill unsigned, and McNamara seething.

The next morning he went to the mattresses.

“They used symbols out of Godfather I,” McNamara told the Providence Journal, “and left the dead squid on the desk to send a message to the House of Representatives, which I think is extremely petty and unfortunate.” He continued, “Petty politics at its worst.”

McNamara’s blood was boiling as his signature legislation—the bill that would breathe new life into the Rhode Island economy—would have to wait another year.

Governor Lincoln Chafee sat awkwardly at a table that had been placed in front of a fishing boat, outside of Town Dock, a wholesale fish dealer in Narragansett whose motto is, unironically, “Holding squid to a higher standard.”

It was a warm day in late June, 2014, and he wore a white dress shirt and tie, his sleeveless undershirt visible underneath. In front of him, two large white pieces of paper and four boxed pens. A blue curtain of sorts dressed the table.

He was flanked by Rep. McNamara and Speaker Mattiello.

“Get out there and catch some squid, and let’s have some calamari,” Gov. Chafee jovially told the small crowd gathered there.

McNamara was beaming. He grabbed the Governor’s hand after he signed the calamari bill into law. A year after the Senate had abruptly adjourned, it returned to cooler heads and voted to pass McNamara’s hard-fought, often mocked legislation.

Before the ceremony Richard Fuka, president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance called the bill a “selling tool” for his industry. “Squid is to Rhode Island what the potato is to Idaho,” he told the AP.

That day the Boston Globe headline gave McNamara what he’d wanted for his state and his bill—publicity: “Squid State: Calamari Named Rhode Island Official Appetizer.”

Since its 45th out of 50th ranking in economic outlook in 2013, Rhode Island is up six spots, to 39th, in 2018. But that glimmer of good news isn’t enough to put the state in a better economic light—and it’s still repeating chronic mistakes.

At the end of 2018, the state was named one of the worst run in the US by a 24/7 Wall Street survey of Best Run States in America. According to the report, “Rhode Island has accumulated some of the most debt of any state, and is one of just four states in which total outstanding debt is greater than annual revenue.”

But McNamara insists the bill has been helpful. “We’ve still got a lot going on with the calamari. I was going to say it still ‘has legs,’ but it’s continuously on our radar screen.”

McNamara is still a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, and chair of the state’s Democratic Party. His successful passage of the calamari bill appears prominently in the sixth paragraph of his official Rhode Island legislature website biography.

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