Saturday, June 30, 2007

Death of a Mussel

Today's brainteaser is to guess which of the bowls on the left contains the live mussels that we purchased for dinner last night and which bowl contains the dead mussels.

If you are thinking this must be a trick question because there couldn't possibly be that many dead mussels in the four bags we took home from Whole Foods...well, then, you lose. Because in fact fully half of the mussels we bought last night at our neighborhood Whole Foods were DOA.

This is a bit disconcerting when you have guests over for dinner and all has been wagered on the mussels being pulled from the fridge at the last minute, given a quick wash with the intent of plunging them into the cook pot.

This is doubly concerting when you are trying to do a good turn to the rapidly depleting fish in the oceans by eating shellfish instead.

But no, as my wife stood at the sink giving the mussels the usual dead-or-alive test (she likes to run the mussels under cold water and give the open ones a squeeze to see if they react) all we could hear was her muttering, "dead...dead...dead," and the clink of the shell as she dropped the dead soldier into our stainless steel sink.

Needless to say, the "dead...dead...dead" kept repeating what seemed endlessly, until the muttering stopped and she blurted out, "You know, most of these mussels are dead!"

Well, maybe not quite "most," but at least half. Maybe a bit more than half.

Is that unusual? Is it typical to take home two bags full of mussels and find that half of them have expired? I think so. Pretty unusual.

So while the guests were sipping their wine and munching on some steamed artichoke, I zipped back down to our friendly Whole Foods to replace our mussels. Customer Service sent me directly back to the seafood counter, where I tried to insist that the clerk not only replace at least one of the two bags I'd purchased earlier, but open the bag and check to make sure the mussels were actually alive and edible.

"I can't open any bags," he said.

"You can't?"

"No, I can't open any bags."

He disappeared in the back for a few minutes. I'd brought him the evidence of our dead mussels and he'd spread them out in some sort of tray. I could see him walking back and forth with it behind a glass window.

When the clerk emerged again, he said, "So, you want two more bags? Is that what you want?"

I said that would be fine and left with two completely different bags of mussels, in addition to the ones we'd kept from the earlier two bags.

On the drive home, I stuck my nose into the shopping bags containing the replacement mussels and detected the tell-tale aroma of dead seafood. Not a good sign. I wonder if the clerks behind the seafood counter at Whole Foods ever think to sniff the product they sell before passing it off to the customers...

Once home, the dead-or-alive sifting began again. "Dead...dead...dead," I heard my wife muttering. Again, the clinking of the shells. Again, at least half the mussels were dead. So if you guessed the top picture as the one showing the live mussels, you would be correct. The lower picture shows the dead mussels, all piled in a large colander.

Frankly, I've never seen this kind of a mussel slaughter before the cooking even begins. So I located the original label that had come with the bags of mussels and called the company in Maine whose number was on the label and left a message about what had happened on the voice mail of a woman named Madge.

It was a polite message, a professional courtesy indicating that somewhere along the line--somewhere between being caught and being stored and sold at our local Whole Foods--these mussels had met an untimely demise.

Well, on to the meal. In addition to the steamed artichoke, I deep-fried two pounds of squid, dusting them in corn starch seasoned with salt and garlic salt. The mussels--the live ones--went into a pot where I'd sauteed about three large shallots, diced small, with a stick of butter. For the cooking liquid I had intended to use some Pinot Grigio, but when I got back from Whole Foods I found the guests had drunk the Pinot Grigio, so I cracked open a bottle of Sam Adams Summer Ale instead.

The cooked mussels were distributed in large, shallow bistro bowls with linguine, topped with chopped parsley and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. With a salad from the garden on the side, a loaf of French bread to soak up the juices and a cold bottle of Austrian Gruener Veltliner, this was a meal...
And my wife's sour cherry pie for dessert.


Joanna said...

It happened to me once, with some mussels I'd bought from Waitrose (an upmarket / expensive supermarket in UK). After a while, I began to think that the ones that weren't dead must be half-dead, so I threw the whole lot away. I can't remember what we ate instead ... it was about a year ago, and I haven't cooked mussels since


Rob said...

My one experience cooking mussels went pretty much like that too. About two-thirds of mine were dead; I barely had enough for one serving after triage. Between that and having read Kitchen Confidential, I don't eat them anymore. Which is a shame, because mussels are so incredibly good when treated well.

Ed Bruske said...

Joanna and Rob, truthfully I have never hear of such high mussel mortality before. I've been cooking them for years (though not much lately) and you always end up with a few dead soldiers, but nothing like this and nothing like what you are describing.

Mussels are prolific and a good substitute for fish. I think what we need to do is make our concerns known to the local seafood seller (aka fishmonger) and make doubly sure someone smells the product at the very least before the purchase is made. Also, we can pass these experiences on to the point of origin. The fishermen and mussel farmers need to know what's happening on the retail end...

My rant for the day.

cookiecrumb said...

Shit... shit... shit!
That is a terrible story. Do you think mussels themselve have become such fragile lifeforms, or do you suspect transit/handling/storage problems?
My last bag of mussels was pristine, but it was several years ago.

drbehavior said...

"Mussel poisoning due to toxic planktonic organisms is a potential danger along some coastlines. For instance, mussels should be avoided along the west coast of the United States during the warmer months. This is usually caused by dinoflagellates creating elevated levels of toxins in the water that do not harm the mussels, but if consumed by humans can bring on illness. Usually the United States government monitors the levels of toxins throughout the year at fishing sites. See Red Tide." This is from Wikipedia - however, every source I read said to avoid Mussels in the Summer

Ed Bruske said...

Cookiecrumb, most likely these mussels have not been cared for very well, but no way to tell whether by the people who gathered and shipped them (they were labeled as "wild caught") or by Whole Foods...

Dr. Behavior, any links specifically to mussels from the Northeast U.S.? Mussels come from all over the world...

Dave said...

The same thing happened to me around July 1st. Two sacks of mussels from
Whole Foods in Clarendon VA. 95% DOA. Boy was I mad. Just picked up two more sacks from the fish market at the SW Waterfront. This time about 50% DOA. Luckily I have enough to feed two of us.

Ed Bruske said...

Dave, did you happen to check the label from Whole Foods? Was it from J.P's Shellfish in Maine? I don't have a lot of faith in the seafood at the SW Waterfront. I'd go to Cannon's first...