Monday, July 2, 2007

Mussel Update

Sometimes it pays to make the phone call...

Over the weekend we ran into a problem with a huge number of dead mussels purchased from our local Whole Foods here in the District of Columbia. More than half the mussels we bought (and more than half the replacements Whole Foods gave us) were DOA.

Before the night was out, I had pulled the label off one of the bags the mussels were sold in and left a phone message with the company of origin in Maine.

Today I received a call back from Jefferson, an employee with J.P.'s Shellfish in Eliot, ME, to discuss what the problem might have been with our mussels.

"It was 100 degrees in Maine last week," Jefferson said. "Those mussels probably went out on Tuesday. It was hotter here than in Dallas, not to make excuses..."

Another possible explanation: "The mussels are weaker when they're spawning. This is their spawning season."

Jefferson said the company had one other complaint--from a restaurant wholesaler--about the high mussel mortality.

Thanks for the intel, Jefferson.

Unfortunately, I didn't keep the label from the bag of mussels, which would have shown the date they were shipped in Maine. But these would be words to the wise: Watch out buying shellfish in the middle of a heat wave. Be prepared to find some dead ones during spawning season. And if you do have a problem, call the company and save the label.

P.S. J.P.'s Shellfish deals in wild-caught mussels from Maine as well as farmed mussels from Prince Edward Island. The company has a wide distrubtion in the Northeast and a website that's worth visiting for their views on sustainable fisheries.


Joanna said...

I was thinking it was about time to get over myself and buy some mussels, because they are so good .. now I think I'll wait until summer's over (although here it's still like spring). It's troubling, the fact that so many of us have had these bad experiences, which shouldn't be happening. But Ed you are absolutely right, we must make sure the producers know what is happening at the retail end of the chain.


Ed Bruske said...

Producers get very little feedback from consumers and they are so grateful when they do. Making that connection can only help on both ends. IN fact, I had a very pleasant and productive e-mail exchange with someone from the company after the phone call I described in the post.

I don't think the solution is to avoid mussels necessarily at any particular time of year, but to be an educated consumer. Cooks need to be conscious about what's happening in the real world of food, the good environmental reasons for avoiding certain kinds of finfish in favor of abundant shellfish, for instance. But we also need to re-learn the knowledge that our grandmother's had, namely, talking to our purveyors about where products come from; squeezing, sniffing, weighing--in other words using our mind as well as the rest of our senses when making purchasing decisions.

It was my mistake to buy the mussels so cavalierly, without giving them so much as a sniff before running home with them...

Bob del Grosso said...

Ed, I think your are letting Whole Foods off the hook a little too easily.
My guess is that the guilty parties here were the buyers and the manager of the department who sold them too you. After all, if mussels are "weaker" during spawning season then shouldn't Whole Foods know that and adjust their shipping and handling criteria accordingly? Or not sell them at all?

Next time that happens, just ask for your money back and worry about how you are going to get to where the fresh stuff is the next time you get a hankering for mussels.

The omnivores true dilema is not being able to get high quality food everyday in a culture that professes that it's already here for the right price :-)

Ed Bruske said...

Bob, I don't mean to let Whole Foods off the hook. There are a number of guilty parties here. First, it was probably a bad executive decision on the part of J.P's Shellfish to go ahead and process then transport mussels in the midst of a severe heat wave and during spawning season. Surely the execs at the company had some second thoughts about whether their product would survive the journey, especially to points as far south as Washington, D.C. They coulda seen that one coming...

Secondly, Whole Foods definitely should take the blame for passing a bad food product on to customers. Once again, I think this illustrates how the expertise one formerly expected in the seafood and butcher departments has been replaced with clerk types who are barely competent in their fields. It may come as a surprise, but Washington, D.C.--at least in the city proper--has practically no high quality seafood markets worthy of the name "fishmonger," the possible exception being Cannon's, which doubles as a wholesale and restaurant supply.

Finally, I fault myself for not being a more canny seafood consumer and being a little more curious about the quality or liveliness of the mussels when I was first standing their at the seafood counter, staring a rather dull-looking sales clerk in the eye. And you could fault me for falling into the omnivore's trap of expecting immaculate mussels shipped some hundreds of miles from Maine in the middle of a heat wave during spawning season. Perhaps I should be looking for a more local mussel alternative?

The whole seafood thing is a quagmire. I'm thinking a really sustainable seafood restaurant would make a point of not selling any seafood at all. In fact, I'm getting ready to compose an e-mail to our local restaurant critic for lauding a new Mexican joint that's pushing snapper, an overfished species if ever there was one.

But your points are all well taken, Bob.

Bob del Grosso said...

"The whole seafood thing is a quagmire. I'm thinking a really sustainable seafood restaurant would make a point of not selling any seafood at all."

I hear that. It is impossible to consume fish and promote the sustainability of wild fisheries and without promoting fish farming.

"I'm getting ready to compose an e-mail to our local restaurant critic for lauding a new Mexican joint that's pushing snapper, an overfished species if ever there was one."

If I see another review praising this or that venue for their Chilean sea bass I'm going to become dangerous.

BTW, I read the mussel post again today and realized that I did not read it thoroughly last night, had not assimilated all of your points. So if my earlier comment seemed myopic it was bec. I'd not been reading carefully.

Adios Ed

Ed Bruske said...

Bob, everything's a blur to me...

See you in the ethernet