sepia

Would you ever squid your family?

How about your family photos?

OK, not squid, not really. Cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish isn’t quite snugglebunny, is it? But there’s something classy about it, you know… [touches earpiece] Wait, I’m just being told that no, there’s not.

But oh, yes, there is. You know that classic golden-brown tone of some old photographs? What’s called sepia?

Well. I was just making supper tonight, and, as one may from time to time, I was using pasta with squid ink colouring. And on the front of the package, I noticed that, along with a photo of a tentacled sea creature on a bed of parsley, it said “tagliatelle con nero do seppia.”

Huh. Seppia

I turned over the package. It gave the ingredients in several languages. “Durum wheat semolina with squid ink,” it said. And in German, “Hartweizengriess mit Sepia-Tinte.”

Hmm.

So I looked it up. And here’s the deal. Cephalopods – octopus, squid, cuttlefish – produce ink, as you probably know. That ink has been historically used not just for the obvious purpose of colouring pasta but also, strangely enough, for drawing and writing. Squid ink, as seen in pasta, is a blueish black, often with green tinges; cuttlefish ink, the more popular kind for art, tends towards a rich brownish black. In both cases, the original cephalopod uses the ink as a means of escaping. And in pasta as in photography, the original cephalopod has escaped.

In pasta, it has escaped because squid ink is not cuttlefish ink and yet they say it is. Sepia (or, in Italian, seppia) is cuttlefish; it comes from Latin, which got it from Greek, basically unaltered, meaning the same critter. But my pasta is evidently coloured with squid ink; you can see the bluish-green tint, rather than the brownish tint of cuttlefish ink. Yet the Italians and Germans call it sepia ink nonetheless. And if they are right, then English – which, as on my pasta package, calls it squid ink – is wrong. Either way, someone has a disconnect between ink producer and ink name.

In photography, the cephalopod has escaped because although the photographs have the same kind of brownish-black tint as you see in drawings made with actual sepia ink, they are not actually made with ink from cuttlefish. Rather, it’s called sepia just because it looks about the same as cuttlefish ink. In actuality, the silver in the print has been converted to silver sulfide, which, aside from having a warmer look, is more stable and lasts longer.

And, of course, in photos such as the ones I have here, the tint isn’t ink at all; it’s just a tinge in the image presented by your computer screen. The squid has quit town; the cuttlefish has scuttled away.

So there you have it. And there you have my lovely pasta dinner, which I cooked for my lovely wife.

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