Mussels

I am not a good cook. Okay, that’s being too generous. On the scale of fine dining, I’m somewhere between Ramen Noodles and Pop Tarts. I consider a nice meal to be whole-wheat pasta with vegetable sauce and a salad. When I’m really in a hurry, and don’t feel like slaving over a hot stove for five minutes, I usually go with a Cliff Bar or Banana. Or Lean Cuisine meals. Can I just say: those inventions are simply splendid? They take five minutes to microwave and are surprisingly delicious (“all the taste and none of the fat!”).

I do not consider my cuisine depravity to be completely my fault. I don’t, however, think it is genetic. My father is renowned for not knowing how to cook, but I think his inability was a little exaggerated by his British-in-law’s. That’s the thing about having British-in-laws, they seem to exaggerate things. Just look at history, a couple of more-than-likely drunken “rebels” tossed their tea into the ocean and next thing you know the Redcoats are marching in (the Yanks, I’m sure were baffled: ”Come on, now… it was all in good fun. And yes, I’m sorry we also took a whiz on the statue of King George, but we were drunk! Let’s not over react, gentleman…here, have a beer”). My father seemed to have a similar experience: one meal of Hamburger Helper and he wasn’t allowed to go near the stove for years. But this taught him a sense of resourcefulness I grew to admire. As kids, we loved nights with Dad because it meant one thing was certain: we were getting pizza.

My mother, on the other hand, is one of those people with a rare ability to take the odds and ends within the kitchen cabinets, and, with the addition of about twenty minutes and a good dose of wine (to this day, I’m not quite sure if it was for cooking of consumption), concoct a meal fit for kings. Of all my mothers’ remarkable qualities, this one takes the cake (pun well intended). It was like a magic show, little bit of this, little bit of that, gulp of wine and POOF! dinner! So I hardly think this is genetic.

Rather, I think my condition is the combination of being broke, easy to please and irrefutably single. Well, that and my utter disconnect with French culture, but I’m pretty sure that’s a dead horse.

The point to all this is that I want to learn how to cook. I’m still broke, very easy to please and, oh yes, certainly single. But I want to learn to cook. So I’ve been keeping and eye out for opportunities.

Fun fact: along the coast of Maine, there are certain areas in which it is legal to collect mussels for free. Bar Harbor is one such area. Many people have never heard of mussels, but I grew up with a mother who loved these black shellfish. Anytime there was a good deal at the supermarket, she’d buy a pound or so and cook them in- you guessed it- white wine. So this week, I decided I would try my hand at making a mussel dinner.

Step One: Buy the ingredients.

Since I was completely clueless as to what I would need to make my meal, I consulted my mother. I thought about texting her, but that never goes well:

Bryn: Hey Mom, I just had a quick question about cooking mussels, what do I cook them in?

(15 minutes later) Mom: hEy- B4ry$#, ifF u want 2 cok#e the museo fkhg54239#%@kafk (The last slew of characters I usually interpret as my otherwise pious mother’s string of frustrated profanity.)

Bryn: Calling now…

Within five minutes, I had a list of ingredients and instructions. I set off for the supermarket and picked up an onion, heavy cream, salt, and- let us not forget- a bottle of white wine. Leaving the grocery store, I checked my watch. Low tide was in about ten minutes. I made my way to the harbor.

Step Two: Collect the Mussels.

Before I did that, I had to ensure I wouldn’t die. See, there’s a pesky little bacteria known as Red Tide that seeps in along the coastline here and infects all the shellfish. I know this sounds like something out of a crappy 80’s horror movie, but it’s not a lie (nor is it fiction). The water literally turns red with clouds of these bacteria and, for a while, it’s not safe to eat any of the shellfish. If one were to consume any product infected with Red Tide, the result would be something like food poisoning. Very, very bad food poisoning. Death often results. That’s reason enough to check, if you ask me.

So I called the Red Tide hotline to ensure that if I died of anything, it’d be my cooking, not Red Tide.

Good news, the bacteria were still down south, possibly held up in a Boston traffic jam(or lost in Gloucester). I was safe.

I drove down to the sand bar, now at fully exposed at low tide. I took a grocery bag, and began making my way through the muddy tidal waters, picking up mussels as I went. This must’ve been quite a sight for the tourists:

“Daddy! Daddy! What’s that man doing out there in the mud?”

“The one with his jeans rolled up, who keeps tripping over himself and muttering words it’s a good thing you can’t hear?”

“Yea! That man.”

“He’s collecting mussels.”

“What are they, Daddy?”

“They’re a type of animal that live in the muddy water.”

“What’s he doing with them?”

“I think he’s going to eat them.”

“Ewwww, that’s gross. Why would he do that, Dad?”

“Because, they’re free, and I would guess he’s pretty poor. Remember what I told you, son…make sure you go to (insert east coast private school with a European sounding accent on the vowels), or that could be you someday.”

Step Three: Cook the mussels.

By the time I got back to my house, I was already fairly hungry. So I opened the French bread I’d bought to go with the mussels and took a bite. Then I eyed the bottle of wine. I uncorked it and took a swig. It wasn’t all that bad for a seven-dollar purchase. I took another swig. Like mother like son; cooking became a lot more fun.

I retrieved a large pot from my landlord’s kitchen cabinet, and placed it on the stove with the burners turned on high. I took a swig of wine. I read the notes my mother had dictated over the phone. Took a swig of wine. I added butter to the bottom of the pan. I chopped up the onion and I started to cry. But it was okay, because I took a swig of wine.

Placing the onion in the bottom of the pan, I heard it sizzle with the butter and instantly the house was filled with a familiar smell. I knew I was doing something right, because it reminded me of my mother’s cooking. To celebrate such a joyous occasion, I took a swig of wine.

While the onion was cooking, I cleaned off the mussels. I quickly learned why mussels collected off the beach were free, but those in supermarkets cost an arm and a leg per pound: cleaning them was a task. It was okay though; I talked to myself and every now and then convinced Bryn that it’d be a good time to take another swig of wine. I scrubbed ferociously, and by the time the onions were cooked, the mussels were all ready to go.

I put the mussels in the pot and poured the wine over top. I poured half the bottle in, and then went to take another swig, only to find it was nearly empty. For a moment I was puzzled. I executed my best Jack Sparrow impression to date: “why is the (wine) gone??” But wine in the pot began to burn off, and the smell was even more familiar; all was well.

I assembled a salad and toasted the bread, eyeing the remaining wine. I stirred the mussels from time to time, and was delighted as I saw the shells begin to open (a sign that they were cooked). I poured cream over the mussels, and added salt, both of which blended in with the wine to create the sauce. And just like that, I had the first sophisticated self-cooked meal of my life. I sat down to toasted French bread, a lovely tossed salad, a plate overflowing with mussels and, quite naturally, the remnants of my wine.

And, I do declare, it was good. It not only tasted delightful, but there was a certain sense of satisfaction that came from putting more effort into making a meal than simply pushing the “Start” button. I finished my meal, and sat at the table for a moment, letting it all seep in. Eventually, I cleaned all the dishes, throwing away the shells, and then rinsing the pots.

Finally, I retired to my room where I flopped onto my bed. I had promised my mother I would let her know how it went, so I texted her:

Bryn: Meal a success! Wish you could have been here to enjoy it with me.

(5 minutes later) Mom: gLad u $li2ked iT. Lo3e you! Xo

With that, I attempted to read but soon drifted off into a content slumber, another sign of an excellent meal.

Then again, maybe that was the just wine.

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