Did a Squid Nearly Derail UConn’s Title Run?
4th April 2023

HOUSTON — In the afterglow of Connecticut’s N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship, spare a thought for the humble squid, the sea creature whose slippery reputation sustained some collateral damage in the Huskies’ rampage to the trophy.

The cephalopod slander started over the weekend, when Jordan Hawkins, a UConn star who suffered through an hourslong gastrointestinal episode on his bathroom floor early Friday, made a heroic appearance in Saturday’s semifinal round, helping his team to victory on a mostly empty stomach.

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

“I think it was the calamari,” Hawkins said at his locker late Saturday, shaking his head. “Had to be. I love calamari, too. I don’t think I’m ever eating it again.”

And thus calamari became the latest humble food item to be scapegoated by a sports star.

Go as far back as 1959, when members of the Oklahoma Sooners football team publicly speculated that a tainted bowl of fruit salad at a Chicago restaurant was to blame for a roster-wide spate of uncontrollable vomiting before a defeat to Northwestern.

Or recall that Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers spent the night before Game 2 of the 2002 N.B.A. finals — a loss to the Sacramento Kings — regurgitating a room service bacon cheeseburger. (Bryant, with his typical bravado, told reporters that he planned to eat a burger before Game 3.)

And who in Britain could forget the elegantly named “Lasagnagate,” when 11 Tottenham Hotspur players — all of whom had indulged in the Italian comfort food classic from a hotel buffet — fell violently ill in their rooms before a loss in their final game of 2006 that cost them a spot in the Champions League.

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

Hawkins and UConn, in this respect, fared somewhat better. The upchucking was ultimately contained to a single player, life went on, and the Huskies won the championship. Hawkins, an N.B.A. prospect, contributed 16 points in the final on Monday night.

Instead, it was the Houston restaurant scene and squid lovers worldwide who were left dealing with some minor fallout 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 did the team. But a journalist for the outlet Stadium reported on Twitter that the Huskies had dined as a group on Thursday night at Mastro’s Steakhouse, a trendy eatery in Houston. By Sunday afternoon, that information had been picked up by multiple outlets and was circulating on social media, where the original tweet had been viewed more than 700,000 times.

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

“Throughout Final Four weekend, we sold nearly 100 orders of calamari with zero calls about illness,” a representative of the restaurant told The New York Times. “The basketball team dined with us Thursday evening and had 13 orders of calamari.”

“How did one person get food poisoning if 13 orders were on the check?” the representative added, supplying copies of receipts as evidence.

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

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable in the past? Can we corroborate the information? Even with these questions satisfied, 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 repeated in both gastroenterology and food service, pinpointing the source of digestive distress is more difficult than laypeople realize, given that symptoms can begin several hours after the ingestion of something legitimately sketchy, or even several days later.

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

The sports world in general can be an unsavory place, and food items from across the world are constantly being blamed for athletes’ personal hardships.

For instance, the longstanding narrative around Michael Jordan’s “flu game” — Game 5 of the 1998 N.B.A. finals — underwent a culinary revision in 2020, when the former Chicago Bulls star claimed his bout of digestive misery was caused by a suspicious pizza delivered to his room the night before the game.

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

A different (equally delicious-sounding) pork dish was inculpated 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 sick of European food,” Tong’s coach Wu Weifeng said at the time, “so we gave her a lot of pork chops when she returned home.”

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

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

But calamari had no shortage of defenders this week.

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

Bordieri, who became internet-famous in 2020 for solemnly lifting a plate of fried calamari on camera during the Democratic National Convention, has a quirky but fail-proof method for frying squid to perfection.

“You drop the calamari into the fryolator, it sounds like a crowd is applauding,” Bordieri said. “And once the crowd ceases applauding, that’s when you pull the calamari up. It sounds funny, but it works.”

Fried calamari first took off as a gastronomic trend in the United States in the 1970s. Today squid maintains a workmanlike role on many a restaurant menu — as a vehicle for an assertive dipping sauce, perhaps, or a supporting character in some sort of seafood medley.

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

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

“Disavowing calamari forever would be very tragic, mostly for Mr. Hawkins, because he’d be missing out on one of the most loved appetizers of all time, for all time,” said Briana Hughes, vice president of operations for The Town Dock, a leading squid wholesaler based in Narragansett.

The fried calamari at Mastro’s, which goes for $21, is served with a zigzag of peppery, pink aioli and a tangy dipping sauce that is pleasantly reminiscent of the packaged duck sauce from a Chinese American takeout joint. Bits of scallion punctuate the Asian vibe.

On Sunday, a Mastro’s employee politely cast doubt on the idea that the restaurant might have caused the illness, citing its intense safety protocols. The staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to officially speak for Mastro’s, said restaurants in general were more likely to arouse suspicion when they had some rooting interest against the athlete customers.

The employee said that the Boston Red Sox had dined at the restaurant a few years back when they were playing the Houston Astros in the playoffs. They left, of course, as happy, healthy customers — even if the waiters and kitchen staff were all fans of the home team.

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

There was understandably no booze on the Huskies’ receipt, though there were 21 lemonades and seven Shirley Temples.

If Connecticut held any lasting grudge against the restaurant, they did not voice it. Instead they let their stomachs do the talking. And according to the representative of Mastro’s, they spoke volumes.

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

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