Mussels: the mushrooms of the sea.

3075952132_55e3d73ff2_mBy Annie

I was, until yesterday, a mussel virgin. (And, until today, an IFA one as well. Hi friends!) But, I went to Granville Moore’s, the supposed best spot in D.C. for the crustacean, which was cooked in wine, butter, and herbs and served with really stellar frites and Belgian beer.

This trip to the very charming hole-in-the wall on H Street was a culmination of a life-long saga. As a child, an extraordinary distaste for Bumblebee tuna — a favorite of my mother’s and, in my 7-year-old mind, a tinned fish with the texture of softened balsam and the faint smell of garbage — led me to reject all seafood. I ate only, erm, landfood, until middle school, at which point I’d occasionally manage to choke down a few bites of fish that tasted of nothing (e.g. overcooked halibut). But I didn’t like it.

All of which was a bit weird because I was an extraordinary — really, extraordinary — eater as a kid. Frank Bruni-esque — I have the (adorably?) chubby photos to prove it, too. I’d eat mayonnaise sandwiches (very good if the bread is toasted). Sushi. Borscht. On occasion, organ meat. Ambrosia pudding. The food my grandmother, Dolly, who was a delight but a terrible cook, made. In essence, everything — better food preferred, but worse food hardly excluded — consumed in copious amounts.

But, due to that Bumblebee tuna, I considered all fish and crustaceans not just unpalatable, but inedible. I had a sort of literal trouble eating them, and I’d masticate and swallow, but never savor. It was a really good prawn, coated in chili and grilled over an open fire (during the summertime on a beach, no less) when I was in high school that made me realize the aversion was more psychological than culinary. It was tender, it was tasty, and because of it, I started actually liking shrimp and lobster, then fatty fishes, then flaky fishes, then eel. Bumblebee tuna ushered me out, and the perfect prawn ushered me back in.

Still, I never could countenance the gummier and more primordial types of shellfish — oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels. First, I found it discomfiting that one could eat the whole thing. At least with a prawn, you’re only consuming 90 percent, and you get to pull off any exoskeleton or suspect-seeming stringy bits. Second, I distrusted the fact that the first word used to describe them by aficionados was always “briny.” Even a pickle, brined by definition, is not primarily described as “briny” — but “salty” and “peppery” and “dill-ish.” Third, how to determine if one shouldn’t eat it? You know to avoid pink chicken, or meat that smells of anything but blood and is anything but pink. But it seems no such guidelines exist for these shellfish once they’re in your bowl. Finally, the texture. Wet and chewy: an extraordinarily concerning combination.

Every once and a while, I’d try a bit of a scallop, which I’ve come to like — it’s really more fish than creature-in-shell. I’d eat a fried clam, which tastes of whatever it is fried in. It isn’t a preferred option, but I wouldn’t starve if it were the last food on earth. At the epically delectable Komi, in the spring, the best meal I’ve ever had, I tried an oyster. Bad choice. I almost spit it out. It tasted like brackish consommé, and the jelly texture made me squirm.

Another IFAer, though, convinced me to go for mussels. I couldn’t recall ever trying them — so averse was I to clams and oysters. And I agreed. In my negotiated form of vegetarianism, for one, mussels are exempt. (They really do seem closer to a radish than to a fish.) Plus, he promised they were good.

So, to Granville Moore’s. To be honest, before the mussel excursion, I was nervous. I spent all day Googling to figure out what they would taste like, and what kind of mouth-feel I could expect. The best description, the one which made me even a bit excited for them, was that they were like the “mushrooms of the sea,” with a faint, woody, briny taste, a slightly chewy but firm texture, and a delicious propensity to take on the flavor of their cooking liquid.

Confronted with a plate of them in a warm bath of wine and butter, I tried with gusto.

The result? Well, losing your virginity is never as exciting as you think it will be. The experience wasn’t revolting, but was hardly as pleasurable as I’d hoped. They weren’t strange, alien, or fishy-tasting. Indeed, they really don’t taste like much at all. They occasionally had an almost squeaky quality, and sometimes a kind of pleasant saltiness. Mediocre on the mouth-feel. I preferred dipping the frites and baguette into the sauce than to drenching the mussels in it.

That’s about it. So, even if I have no affection for the mussel, I have no fear of it either. That, for me, seems something of an accomplishment.

10 responses to “Mussels: the mushrooms of the sea.

  1. Gratz on conquering a food fear. I did that kind of thing for most of my 20’s, as I was an extraordinarily picky eater as a child.

    IMHO, you picked the best way to have them… as far as I’m concerned, moules frites is the pinnacle of mussel eating. So if you weren’t that impressed it’s unlikely to change.

  2. So bizarre that I actually had my first mussel last week. I, too, avoided oysters, mussels and the like for years. Oysters I’m on board with. Mussels, I’m working on.

    I second your opinion on dipping as well.

  3. Anonymous Frustrated Lawyer

    “I’d eat mayonnaise sandwiches (very good if the bread is toasted). Sushi. Borscht”

    Typical IFA member, eats sushi but does not eat fish.

  4. Yeah I was going to ask about the sushi comment too — what did you consider it if not fish?

    Also, Granville Moore’s, though trendily praised, does not have the best anything in the city, in my opinion. The mussels are fine, but, only fine. Don’t really understand the craze (as I’ve previously discussed on the IFA: http://internetfoodassociation.com/2009/01/13/do-not-want-granville-moores-fried-brie/). But, kudos on trying something new!

  5. True, not the best example…at least when I was a kid, I was a big fan of these plastic-pack veggie and California rolls (lord only knows what are in there).

  6. In theory, california rolls have crab, not fish. In reality, it’s imitation crab, which is generally made from fish (usually whiting). But at that level of processing, I’m not really sure I’d call it seafood. Certainly doesn’t taste like seafood.

  7. Mussels aren’t crustaceans, they’re molluscs.

  8. mushrooms of the sea!!!
    i like that!!!

  9. Mussels are so cheap and easy to make I can rarely justify ordering them out. You can get a two pound bag at Eastern Market or Whole Foods for 6 or 7 bucks and cook it with whatever white wine, herbs, garlic etc you have on hand. Add some french bread or sourdough, and you have a ridiculously easy fall meal.

  10. I was also going comment that mussels are mollusks and calling them crustaceans is a worse error, biologically speaking, than confusing a turkey with a trout. But I should point out to the above commenters that sushi refers to vinegared rice, nothing more. Sushi can be, and usally is, combined with sashimi, which is the raw fish, but it isn’t necessary.

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