Restaurant pushes back on Calamari’s guilt for athlete’s illness

HOUSTON — In the aftermath of The NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in Connecticutconsider the humble squid, the sea creature whose slippery reputation suffered some collateral damage during the Huskies’ raid for the trophy.

The cephalopod smear began over the weekend, when Jordan Hawkins, a UConn star who suffered an hours-long gastrointestinal episode on his bathroom floor early Friday, made a heroic appearance in Saturday’s semifinals and helped his team to victory over a mostly empty stomach.

After that game, Hawkins revealed the components of his last meal before barfing began: steak, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and calamari.

“I think it was the calamari,” Hawkins said, shaking his head late Saturday in his locker. “Had to be. I like calamari too. I don’t think I’ll ever eat it again.”

And so calamari became the latest simple food to be scapegoated by a sports star.

Go back to 1959, when members of the Oklahoma Sooners football team publicly speculated that a tainted bowl of fruit salad in a Chicago restaurant was responsible for a grid-wide spate of uncontrollable vomiting for a loss to Northwestern.

Or consider Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers spent the night before Game 2 of the 2002 NBA Finals – a loss to the Sacramento Kings – spit out a cheeseburger with bacon. (Bryant, with his typical bravado, told reporters he planned to eat a hamburger before Game 3.)

And who in Britain would have the elegant name”Lasagna gate‘, when 11 Tottenham Hotspur players – all of whom had indulged in the Italian comfort food classic of a hotel buffet – fell violently ill in their room before a loss in their last game of 2006 cost them a place in the Champions League.

“It felt like a fire was lit in my guts with gasoline poured on it over and over,” Michael Carrick, one of the players, vividly wrote in his autobiography.

Hawkins and UConn fared slightly better in this regard. The upchucking was ultimately limited to a single player, life went on, and the Huskies won the championship. Hawkins, an NBA prospect, contributed 16 points in Monday night’s Finals.

Instead, it was the Houston restaurant scene and squid aficionados around the world that suffered a minor dropout from the episode.

Hawkins, who spent a day isolated from his teammates, did not name the restaurant where he ate the calamari in question. Neither does the team. But a journalist for the Stadium outlet reported on Twitter that the Huskies had dinner as a group Thursday night at Mastro’s Steakhouse, a trendy eatery in Houston. By Sunday afternoon, that information had been picked up by multiple outlets and circulated on social media, where the original tweet had been viewed more than 700,000 times.

And so the restaurant broke its silence on Monday to defend itself.

“During Final Four weekend, we sold nearly 100 calamari orders without calling about illness,” a representative for the restaurant told The New York Times. “The basketball team dined with us Thursday night and had 13 orders of calamari.”

“How did one person get food poisoning when there were 13 orders on the bill?” the rep added, handing over copies of receipts as evidence.

Food poisoning is already a bit of a problematic concept in general, he said Cedric Dark, an emergency physician and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. The problem is that the phrase has become a catchall term for all sorts of stomach problems, ranging from bacterial and viral infections to indigestion.

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What is their motivation for telling us? Have they proven reliable in the past? Can we confirm the information? Even with these questions met, The Times uses anonymous sources as a last resort. The reporter and at least one editor know the identity of the source.

According to an old chestnut echoed in both gastroenterology and food service, pinpointing the source of digestive problems is more difficult than laymen realize, as symptoms can begin a few hours after ingesting something legitimately vague, or even a few days later.

“It must be the calamari?” said Dark. “How do we know it wasn’t the steak?”

The world of sports in general can be an unsavory place, and foods from around the world are constantly blamed for athletes’ personal hardships.

For example, the time-honored story surrounding Michael Jordan’s ‘flu game’ – Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals – underwent culinary revision in 2020, as the former Chicago Bulls star claimed his bout of digestive issues was caused by a suspicious pizza taken to his room the night before the game.

In 2021, American runner Shelby Houlihan tested positive for nandrolone, a banned steroid, and put the blame on an unusual pork burrito she said she ordered from a Mexican food truck.

Another (equally delicious-sounding) pork dish was conceived in 2010, when Chinese judo champion Tong Wen tested positive for a Clenbuterol, another unauthorized substance, and was stripped of her world title.

“She trained in Europe for a while and was tired of European food,” said Tong’s coach Wu Weifeng at the time, “so we gave her a lot of chops when she came home.”

Food is always an easy target this way. And restaurateurs in particular are used to people jumping to medical conclusions about what they eat.

“They always blame the oyster, they never blame the Crown Royal,” he said Jim Gossen, the president of the Gulf Seafood Foundation (and, according to the Houston Chronicle, “the city’s dean for seafood”), who has opened several restaurants in his career. “Isn’t that the truth?”

But calamari had no shortage of defenders this week.

John Bordieri, the chef of Iggy’s Promenade in Warwick, Rhode Island, said squid is one of the easier proteins to handle because it’s easy to tell when it’s gone bad — it goes rancid quickly — and because it’s so simple to cook.

Bordieri, who rose to internet fame in 2020 by solemnly lifting a plate of fried calamari on camera at the Democratic National Convention, has a quirky but fail-proof method of frying squid to perfection.

“You drop the calamari into the deep fryer, it sounds like a crowd applauding,” Bordieri said. “And as soon as the crowd stops applauding, pull up the calamari. It sounds funny, but it works.”

First fried calamari started as a gastronomic trend in the United States in the 1970s. Today, squid plays a professional role on many a restaurant menu—perhaps as a vehicle for an assertive dipping sauce, or as a supporting character in some sort of seafood mix.

But imagine life without calamari. No more salt-and-pepper squid from your favorite Cantonese restaurant. Many ceviches would lose their texture weight. And say sayonara to ika sushi.

Hawkins’ claim that he might never eat calamari again was therefore particularly troubling to onlookers in Rhode Island, where fried calamari was anointed the state’s “official appetizer” in 2014.

“To reject calamari forever would be very tragic, especially for Mr. Hawkins, because he would miss out on one of the most beloved snacks of all time,” said Briana Hughes, vice president of operations for The City docka leading squid wholesaler based in Narragansett.

The fried calamari at Mastro’s, which costs $21, is served with a zigzag of peppery, pink aioli and a spicy dipping sauce pleasantly reminiscent of the packaged duck sauce from a Chinese-American takeout joint. Pieces of spring onion accentuate the Asian atmosphere.

On Sunday, a Mastro employee politely questioned the idea that the restaurant could have caused the illness, citing strict safety protocols. The staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak officially for Mastro’s, said restaurants in general were more likely to arouse suspicion if they had any interest in the athlete clientele.

The employee said the Boston Red Sox had eaten at the restaurant a few years ago when they played the Houston Astros in the playoffs. They left as happy, healthy customers, of course – even though the waiters and kitchen staff were all fans of the home team.

“If they wanted to drink, we certainly didn’t stop them,” the employee said.

Understandably, there was no booze on the Huskies receipt, even though there were 21 lemonades and seven Shirley Temples.

If Connecticut harbored an enduring grudge against the restaurant, they didn’t express it. Instead, they let their stomachs speak. And according to Mastro’s representative, they spoke volumes.

On Sunday night, the night before the championship game, the Huskies called in a delivery with eight more orders of fried calamari.