Mussel Bound Posted on February 15th, 2009 by

Mussels, unbound

Mussels, unbound (Used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license (

Readers of #25 found a tantalizing paragraph or two about Lisa’s adventures with a mussel. Here is the piece in its entirety….

I am, it appears, a situational mussel eater, just in the way that other people are social smokers, or contexual drinkers.[1] Give me the right situation-say, a glass of Riptide Red and a table full of friends in the pub at the Brooklin Inn-and I’ll consume the better part of a bowl of steamed mussels all by myself. Confront me with a mussel in the state of nature, on the other hand, and I become more quivering and gelatinous than the mussel itself.

I learned to eat mussels in the aforementioned Brooklin Inn pub, from Peg’s mum, Ann. She ordered mussels for dinner one evening, and when I expressed a certain trepidatious curiosity about them, she offered me one. Perhaps it was the Dijon cream sauce in which the mussels swam.[2] Perhaps it was the convivial atmosphere that Ann and Jack (Peg’s dad) always create in a restaurant. Perhaps it was the fact that, when you come right down to it, the darn things are so small they can slip down without you so much noticing. Whatever the case, I certainly helped her polish off her bowl that night.

On subsequent evenings in the pub, when accompanied by mussel eaters or potential mussel eaters I myself have boldly ordered bowls “for the table,” and dug in with real relish. Okay, so I have enjoyed using the shells to lap up the Dijon cream sauce every bit as much as I’ve appreciated the little mustard-yellow mussels themselves, but in certain situations, I really have eaten them by choice. Sometimes I’ve even chewed.

Last summer, I even ventured to try them in another restaurant in town, where they appeared in smoked form, in a salad that also featured goat cheese (one of nature’s most perfect foods). Divine. I made a mental note to myself to find out where I could buy smoked mussels for my very own home use.

Oddly, that note is still hanging on my mental refrigerator door, a year later. My failure to take the next step-i.e. to actually buy mussels in a store and take them home-turned out to provide my first clue about the situational parameters of my mussel eating. It’s public. Preferably, it’s done in a gathering with friends, good conversation, and a bit of beer to both guide them on their path, and loosen my resistance to their traveling it.

My second clue just presented itself here in my kitchen, in living, ghastly Technicolor just about an hour ago, and it is this: I probably can’t eat them if I’ve had anything to do with their procurement. Let’s hear the tale briefly, shall we, but before we do, why don’t you finish that sandwich you’re about to bite into? Or, better yet, put down this essay, and don’t pick it up again until you are looking for the impetus you need to make it through the third day of that three-day fast you’ve been meaning to undergo.

Recently, inspired by questions from an out of town guest about Where Mussels Come From, I quizzed Ellen, with whom I’d eaten mussels socially, about how to gather them. Can you do it without a license? When do you do it? Where do you do it? How do you know if a mussel is edible? What do you do with them once you get them? We were in kayaks at the time of this conversation, it was mid-tide, and Ellen paddled me over to a known mussel bed, where some blue-purple shells already appeared above the tide mark.[3] She schooled me in mussel basics (no license; do it at low tide; here’s a good place; make sure it’s tightly closed; steam in white wine and garlic till it pops open). She laid heavy emphasis on the need to use a metal-bristled brush to scrape off the so-called beard (“you’ll know it when you see it”) and also any barnacles or other odd bits stuck to the outside shell.

She did not, alas, tell me what to do if I found a small fish inside a mussel shell, either devouring or being devoured, by the original mussel tenant.[4] But that, alas, dear reader, is precisely what I found lurking inside the one solitary mussel I retrieved from the beach at low tide tonight, and that I attempted to prepare in my home kitchen, just as I might steam some nice green beans or kale.

I had decided to start with one, on the theory that, if it was a disaster, it wouldn’t be much to throw away.[5] Armed with a mussel theory, tonight when we were done paddling, I spent a bit of time scrounging around for a nice big fat mussel without much extraneous stuff growing on the outside of it. I found a sizeable one with only two barnacles attached, and wrested it from the clam shell to which it was attached-an operation that already left my nearly-vegetarian self feeling a bit queasy (does a mussel feel pain? If so, does it experience said pain when it is being wrenched from its home by force????)

Things deteriorated from there, when I used a rough piece of granite to rub away the “beard” and to scrape off (and, of course, mangle and kill) the two attached barnacles (who knew they would be all mushy inside of all that hard exoskeleton???).

I brought my mussel home, where I consulted Joy of Cooking. It recommended multiple baths till the water ran clean, an hour under running water, etc., etc.. I bathed it till it positively shone. (Are you okay inside there? Does this upset you at all? Are you still breathing? Can I get you anything?) At one point during the cleaning process (which took roughly the amount of time that the mussel took to grow itself), some oddly oily substance appeared on the shell. I convinced my now-lurching stomach that it was something that had rubbed off from the scouring pad I was using, and I pressed on.

I assembled my mise en place: white wine and crushed garlic cloves, in a small saucepan. I threw in my mussel and closed the lid. Almost instantaneously, the pot started to boil; so did my guts. How long, exactly, did it take to kill them? Do they have nerves? Is it unpleasant to be boiled to death, or is it no more unpleasant than, say, being eaten by whoever it is that eats mussels and leaves their half-shells all over the beach? How would you choose to die, if you were a mussel?

I peeped inside. The mussel was still tightly closed. I waited another minute or two. Boing; like a child’s jack-in-the-box, the thing had sprung wide open. The mussel was facing away from me in the pan, so I turned it toward me…and confronted something that I couldn’t quite understand.

Now, I’ve become far-sighted recently, and I’m also not that familiar with mussel anatomy to begin with, so the fact that I couldn’t quite tell what was going on inside that shell didn’t totally discombobulate me. Yet. I decided to get the thing out into a bowl, where I could inspect it more closely. Truth be told, what little appetite for private mussel eating I ever had was waning fast, what with all the scraping and buffing and throwing of living things into boiling water. But, damn it, I was gonna eat my mussel, even if I had to do it with Peg retching next to me.[6]

Well, maybe I wasn’t. Closer inspection revealed the aforementioned fish-mussel imbroglio-a situation that is definitely not on the (apparently very short) list of mussel-eating situations with which I am comfortable.


Peg proposed that I take the mussel out into the back field to dispose of it. By this time, the dog, ecstatic over the succulent smells of garlic and wine emanating from the stove, was convinced that something absolutely delicious was forthcoming. She followed me down the stairs and out into the field in great anticipation. I pitched the mussel out into the tall grass and she, this dog who has never retrieved so much as a stray piece of food from the floor near her bowl, this dog who, furthermore, exhibits nothing but disdain for the other dogs who eat lobster shells on the beach and who likes nothing so much as a hot dog bun with just a smear of mustard on it…this very same dog went bounding into the meadow to “retrieve” this delicious smelling treat that clearly must be meant for her alone. Studiously, she sniffed the ground, until she located it. And then she walked away.

[1] Frequent readers of this infrequent publication might be surprised to learn that I am any kind of mussel eater at all. Aren’t I a vegetarian? Well, yes, but I’m one of those kinds of vegetarians, the kind who eat fish and seafood. Ask me some other time and I’ll give you my big long theory on why I eat what I eat. It’s currently undergoing some revisions.

[2] Swimming, bathed, drowning; why does every verb I select lead me back to the ghastly scene of the event I am about to describe?

[3] If mussels are purple, does that mean that they are equal parts Democrat and Republican? Are there Democratic and Republican ways to prepare mussels?

[4] Which was it? And isn’t it especially bizarre and upsetting that I couldn’t tell???

[5] Perhaps two would have been a better idea, though once I found that fish cohabiting inside the first mussel shell, I’m not so sure I could have gone on to do anything like eat the second mussel anyway.

[6] Peg, you see, is not part of my mussel-eating situation, or anyone else’s mussel-eating situation, for that matter. She’s more of a one-woman mussel temperance society. Lips that touch mussels will only touch hers after they have been vigorously scoured, using a disinfectant mouthwash.


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