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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

08 October 2015

❖ MUSSELS ❖

Pen Cove Mussels, from Whidbey Island, WA.
 For sale live at the popular
Seattle Fish Co

fish shop and grill, West Seattle, WA.
Saltwater People photo after a delicious lunch.
Living on an island, we eat a fair bit of seafood. We’re surrounded by the Salish Sea—a Pacific coastal waterway between the US and Canada. Most people on the island, if they have a boat, have a crab license. If they don’t have a boat, they can dig along the shore for clams or pry some oysters off the rocks. The ambitious put out strings or bags of seed oysters and grow their own. A few people with large boats have special deep-water winches, lines, and pots to fish for spot prawns in the waters just off shore; others are primarily after salmon or halibut. A visiting marine biologist came to the island’s school a few years ago and taught the children about all the surprising edible foods they could find at the beach. They culminated their study with a feast of barnacles, snails, chitons, bladderwrack, sea lettuce, hijiki, wakame, and bullwhip kelp, prepared by the children and eaten on the sand.
      Intertidal gastropods and seaweed are perfect for children, since they’re both exotic and fairly easy picking, but my favorite seafood is a mollusk: the mussel. Until I was almost 17, however, I didn’t even realize they were edible. They grew throughout the rocky tide pools in Oregon and clung to the pilings along the wharves, their long hairy beards sinuously waving in the currents. My people didn’t eat mussels, though; no Oregonians did, as far as I knew, although the more worldly or well traveled might have. They hadn’t shown up yet in our grocery stores or on our restaurant menus in the 1980s. It took an exchange student from Belgium who went walking with me on the beach one day to point out the delicacies unloved and unsought along the shore. In Belgium, of course, mussels are the key component of moules frites, and, alongside a cellar-temperature beer, practically the country’s national meal.
      But a creosote-covered piling or the pressure-treated wood of a dock is no place to harvest mussels. If you’re foraging, you want to find them on rocks or in tide pools, someplace that’s relatively clean and not impregnated with chemicals. You also want to avoid collecting them during a so-called red tide, the common name for a harmful algal bloom that can make the water turn red, depleting the oxygen in the water and causing the buildup of neurotoxins in filter feeders like mussels. However, the water in a red tide isn’t always red, and using the old mnemonic of avoiding collection during months without the letter “R” isn’t reliable, either. The state maintains a website with current red tide warnings and closures, so you can be fairly sure that the mussels you’re collecting won’t lead to neurotoxic, amnesiac, diarrheal, or paralytic shellfish poisoning—just to cover the main ways that mussels can make you sick or kill you.
      Another precaution is to cook only mussels that are alive. Live mussels will be tightly closed. If they’re just slightly open, you can tap on their shells with a spoon and if they respond by immediately closing, they’re alive. If they don’t respond, they’re dead and you should discard them. Once you’re sure they’re alive, you should soak them in a bowl of cool, fresh water for 20 to 30 minutes to allow them to purge themselves of grit. Then you scrub their shells and debeard them. Debearding is easy; you hold the shell in one hand and tug the beard to the side with the other hand, perhaps wrapping your fingers in a towel for traction, to remove the thin, sticky threads the mussels use to attach themselves to rocks. And then they’re ready to cook. But first you have to find them, which frequently means buying them at the grocery store if there’s no safe, legal place to find them wild.
       Our waterfront property includes just a tiny portion of beach, about thirty feet wide, with no tide pools or big rocks. Most of the beach above the mean low tide mark in Washington State is privately owned, which means that you can’t just wander over to your neighbor’s property and boost their mussels. Most of the tide pools on the island are actually on the tidelands of an 866-acre biological preserve, which makes everything there (including shellfish, also driftwood, agates, and wildflowers) off limits for collection.
      I spend a lot of time in the summer drifting about the bay in a kayak that washed up on
our beach about ten years ago. When nobody claimed the kayak after six months on the maritime salvage registry, it became my property. The kayak is green and plastic, with a low-slung seat and footrests that can slide (reluctantly) forward and back to accommodate the paddler’s height. I like to wander around and visit other boats or go as far as the mouth of the bay, a mile from our dock, or sometimes across the channel to the next island, over two miles away. We keep our 41’ wooden sailboat moored out in the bay too, because our dock bottoms-out in low tide. The boat’s mooring buoy is attached by light lines that connect to two stout mooring lines that go from the Samson post, through two hawsepipes on either side of the bow, all the way down to the concrete block that is her anchor when she’s at home.
      I went kayaking around the bay one day late last summer. It was September and late in the afternoon, still warm. The sky was golden, there were long shadows, and the air was still. The bay was dotted with the buoys of crab pots and with a dozen or so visiting boats. The usual cormorants and gulls bobbed on the water, a few kingfishers perched on the dock rail. A couple of bald eagles and great blue herons were already roosting for the night high up in the fir trees along the shore. A resident seal watched me as I paddled, following me at a safe distance. I floated up under the sailboat’s bow to get a close look at her lines, to see whether they were fraying where they rub against the house pipes. I noticed that the ropes were encrusted with mussels at the water line. I pulled at one mussel and was surprised to see it came off relatively easily. I set to pulling off as many as I could and tossed the first several into the deep water around me. Then I stopped myself—I could save the mussels and eat them. There were enough here for a feast. The lines weren’t coated with anything, the boat was in deep water away from any drainpipes, roads, or fields, and the mussels were at the opposite end of the boat from the diesel engine. I began to fill my kayak with slippery blue-black shells. When I’d cleaned off what I could reach, I pulled up on one of the mooring lines. This wasn’t easy, since I sat low in the water in the kayak and there was thirty feet of outgoing tide between the concrete anchor and me. Working slowly with constant pressure, I actually pulled the sailboat slightly toward me as I eased more line out of the water. I gathered as many mussels as I could, until the space below my knees was full of shells, and returned to the dock with my bounty.          
      I was received with skepticism by everyone in my family, who thought me certifiably nuts for pulling the mussels off the mooring lines. I considered their concerns, checked the state website for any warnings, and came to the same conclusion I’d had before: safe to eat. Thinking about it now, I don’t understand what we were all so worried about. Wasn’t harvesting them off the mooring lines at least as safe as gathering them from a tide pool? Weren’t the mooring lines sort of akin to the strings that oyster farmers stake out in the tide flats? I soaked the mussels and prepared them my favorite way; all but one of the skeptics ate them with gusto.
      There are a lot of ways to cook mussels, of course. The Japanese bake and top them with tobiko and wasabi or steam them with sake, miso, and spinach. The Thai prepare them with lime juice, ginger, coconut milk, curry paste, and cilantro. Danes make them with aquavit, cream, and tarragon. Belgians steam them in ale or wine, with leeks, butter, celery, and fennel. You can also grill or roast them until they open and fill them with melted butter or a tomato-based sauce and top with toasted bread crumbs. But I, like the French, prefer to steam them in white wine with lemon, lots of garlic, and parsley. You put the mussels in a hot, high-sided skillet or Dutch oven, and add minced garlic and about a cup of dry white wine. Steaming only takes about five minutes, and you should shake the pot occasionally so the mussels cook evenly. The mussels are done when they’ve all opened. You serve them in the shell, with some broth, a squirt a lemon juice, and a handful of roughly chopped parsley. To eat, you can prise them out of their shells using one hinged mussel as a kind of tweezers. You need plenty of crusty French bread to soak up the garlicky wine broth, too.
      Mussels are higher in protein than a T-bone steak of comparable weight, lower in calories and fat, and high in minerals. And you don’t need French fries if you’ve got bread. But I would eat mussels even if they weren’t so good for you. For me, mussels are the ultimate local food: they grow in front of my house and I can paddle out to harvest them fresh when I want them. They’re unfussy and fun, too—the perfect food to share with friends.
 Here is a Belgian version:
Written by Allison Hart Lengyel.
Submitted to Saltwater People Log, May 2015.



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