Tuesday, February 25, 2014

White Wine and Garlic Mussels


My mother collected many things—cookbooks, Weller pottery, Dutch tiles, antique blue-and-white china bowls and plates, vases, ugly lamps, teddy bears that reminded her of my father, newspaper clippings, decades of Consumer Reports and Kovel's Antiques and Collectibles Price Guides, reference books, books about cats, every different Stabat Mater recorded prior to 1962, every note I ever wrote her, receipts, coupons, paper fans, scented soap, nail clippers, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

          When she was in her 60s, I used to kid her that she collected shit because that happened to be her composting phase. For a couple of years, my mother collected compost for a nonexistent garden. The freezer was always jammed with bags of eggshells, coffee grounds and potato peel, just waiting to be added to the growing, rotting heap in our backyard. I think she finally stopped when we noticed it was attracting wild animals.

          I find all of her collections moving in their own way, revealing some secret aspect of her personality. Though I don't wish to collect, for example, nail clippers, I nonetheless find it ritually necessary to look at every object in order to emotionally catalog it. Only then do I feel qualified to save, donate, or discard the things my mother has left behind.

          But now I'm stumped. Here in a drawer of my mother's bedside table, where she kept important and practical things like her magnifying glass, a list of emergency phone numbers, and her weekly pill minder, is something I never expected to find. Not a mysterious key or a sealed envelope with my name on it, but a yellowed batch of newspaper clippings tucked into a paperclip. All recipes for mussels and clams.

          Because I can't bring myself to get rid of it, the tiny bundle follows me around the house like a stray puppy. I thought maybe it would help if I just saved the names of the recipes:
White Wine and Garlic Mussels, Linguine with Mussels and Fresh Herbs, Mussels Marseillaise, Mussel and Basil Sauce for Pasta, Les Palourdes Aux Aromates (Baked clams in spicy butter sauce), Clams and Linguine Franey, Soupe de Poisson aux Moules et Palourdes (Fish soup with mussels and clams), Clams Rene Verdon, Clams au Beurre Blanc (Clams with white sauce), Cream of Clam and Leek Soup, Clam Chowder, Ale-Steamed Mussels with Garlic and Mustard, Mussels with Linguine.
          But I still can't get rid of it.

          Nearly blind in her final years, my mother was also without a sense of taste or smell. But she continued to crave the flavors that no longer reached her. Among them was the taste of the sea. Towards the end, with her magnifying glass extended and quivering under the bright beam of her bedside task light, she recited the ingredients of a recipe to me like a poem or directions on a treasure map.
15 to 18 mussels, cleaned, drained well
3/4 cups dry white wine
1/2 cup clam juice
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
Chopped parsley
          "Doesn't that sound good, Charlotte?"

          Actually, the word mussels is enough to turn my stomach, so perfectly reminiscent of those rubbery-blubbery, salty bits of raw flesh. The word makes me think of my mother on Martha's Vineyard, prying open fresh oysters and clams with a knife—it was hard work—and then cutting off the little pulsing snots from their lifeline and slurping them up straight from the shell, along with their brine. She taught me how to eat them this way, and I loved it. It was like eating the ocean.

          Every summer rental on the Vineyard comes with a lobster pot and we made sure to use it at least once every summer. My mother always liked a bargain, so she favored lobsters with deformed claws, one smaller than the other, because they were discounted. Twice doomed, their claws bound, with beady lidless eyes, their antennae, nonetheless, waved around, wagging like the tails of happy dogs. When the water finally came to a boil, how the tongs scraped against the rim of the pot, and the shells bounced dully against the bottom, how the lobsters merely blushed when they died. I laid the table with newspaper and my mother served each of us our own lobster with wedges of lemon and our own dish of drawn butter, the same way we ate artichokes. It was delicious.

          "It's so much work, those mussels," I told her.

          "I don't know...Pour the oil into a heavy 10-inch sauté pan. Place pan on high heat. When small black wisps of smoke appear carefully add the mussels."

          (I'd have to make a whole other dinner for the kids, cause I knew they'd never touch these mussels.)

           "Toss the mussels to coat evenly and then add the garlic. Sauté for 30 seconds and carefully add the wine and clam juice. Cover immediately. Let steam for about 2 to 3 minutes or until all the mussels are opened."

          (And, God knows, I really don't want to eat it, either.)

           "Pour everything into a serving tray, garnish with chopped parsley and serve. See, that's all?"

          The next time I went shopping, my mother handed me a coupon for canned clams and I took the hint. I made her linguine with canned clam sauce sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan and fresh parsley. It smelled about right, like garlic and sea water.

          "It's tasteless," my mother frowned, accusing, "just chewy and without any flavor. Very strange. Did you put any garlic in it?"

          She had only wanted to try to experience this rather small pleasure, one she could no longer enjoy but that I, too, had begrudged her.

          I know for a fact that she wouldn't have tasted fresh mussels any better than canned clams—but the point is I didn't try. She tasted only blackberries—I know that for a fact—and I made sure she had a dish of them every morning. But she wanted more than blackberries or facts; she also wanted what I couldn't give her: some vital part of love that defies reason with its tireless, cheerful faith.

         For my mother, the recipes were a vivid reminder of life's disappearing pleasures; for me, they are a reminder of how difficult it is to let anything go. Guilt is like an aphrodisiac. It draws the guilty one so close to the source of desire and regret while just holding back from the brink. Still, I admit, it brings me closer.

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