Back in 2014, State Representative McNamara and State Senator Susan Sosnowski submitted a bill to give fried squid the official state imprimatur, on the basis that Rhode Island is home to the largest squid-fishing fleet in the Northeast region. “Squid is to Rhode Island what lobster is to Maine and cod is to Massachusetts,” declared the bill, raising eyebrows across the state. According to The Daily Beast, while some Rhode Islanders were irritated that the legislature was spending valuable time debating the merits of seafood dishes at all, many others simply balked at the idea of elevating calamari over clams.
Up until recently, I would have counted myself among them. I did not like calamari.
I was a kid in 1996, when calamari peaked in popularity and became a staple of restaurant dining tables around the region. But it was particularly ubiquitous in Rhode Island: The country’s smallest state is also one of its most Italian, and nearly one in five Rhode Islanders claim Italian ancestry.
This was mostly to my dismay. Because to a naïve kid, the crispy, golden halos looked enticing — like onion rings fresh from the fryer. Except when I held a piece to my mouth and bit into it, I encountered a rubbery mass instead. I never quite recovered from the bait and switch. I wrote off calamari for years, contenting myself with stuffies, clam cakes, chowder, and other quahog dishes; the clam’s mild brininess buried beneath dense fritter dough or creamy broth was much more amenable to my childhood palate.
But the once mighty quahog industry, which has dominated Rhode Island seafood since the 1940s, has struggled recently: prices for clams have stagnated. At the same time, as the American palate has evolved, the demand for squid has increased. Today, Rhode Island’s squid industry — valued at about $18 million per year — is the biggest commercial fishery in the state and the most valuable squid fishery in the Northeast. “We have something that really distinguishes Rhode Island from every other state,” Mr. McNamara told The Associated Press in 2013. Sure, other Northeast states might have calamari — but do they have this much calamari?
Still, like the rest of the country, Rhode Island, which struggled to recover from the 2008 recession, is facing a new set of challenges as a result of the pandemic. According to the Providence Journal, the fishing industry was walloped in March when the state shut down restaurants and many wholesalers stopped buying seafood altogether. In response, the state temporarily changed industry regulations and permitted fishermen to sell directly to consumers. Today “our state appetizer, calamari, is available in all 50 states,” Mr. McNamara proclaimed on Tuesday.