Hemingway gave me mussels

I have always loved The Old Man and the Sea. For its poignancy, its simple yet striking prose, its tale of pride, heartbreak, resilience and devotion. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, right around the time I took the leap from Food Marketing to English, that I was truly affected by Hemingway’s writing. Ever a fan of The Beautiful and the Damned and The Great Gatsby, I took a class, “Fitzgerald and Hemingway,” mostly for my interest in the former. My own style was word-y, descriptive and exhaustively elaborate (oh, you haven’t noticed?) more akin to the style of Fitzgerald’s flowery prose. I learned so much from that class as we analyzed their contrasting writing styles and studied their writing in context of their personal lives and the era in which they lived and wrote.

Hemingway’s words were a breath of fresh air to me, a slap in the face (in a good way). I was smitten. With his stories and writing style, with the man himself (what girl wouldn’t love a brooding, rugged outdoors-man with a penchant for adventure, writing and food?). I continue to learn so much from his work and his life. I credit my first ‘A’ in creative writing to his theory of omission that “you can omit anything [from a story] if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” This is a little tidbit of information he included in my very favorite book, A Moveable Feast, his exquisite memoir detailing his early efforts in making a living as a writer in 1920s Paris among other writer and artist expatriates during a time when “he was very poor and very happy.” I envy his days spent fraternizing with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce and his quiet time spent writing and eating in Parisian cafes. What a beautiful life to have lived, there.

So that last part I mentioned about eating in Parisian cafes? Well that’s where I’m headed with the food part of this post. I love the way he approaches food in this work, in particular–the way every humble meal or hunger pang becomes romantic. When I first read the excerpt about him eating paper packets full of mandarins and chestnuts by the fire while he wrote, the only thing that stopped me from dropping everything to run to the market was the sad realization that upon returning home I would have no roaring fire by which to roast said chestnuts or spit said mandarin seeds or throw said juicy peels into its flames to “watch the sputter of blue that they made” or smell the spicy sweet aroma of burning orange zest. Sigh. But then I turned a few pages and he ordered the portugaises, the oysters, at his favorite cafe:

“After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy…As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down, with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Oysters, clams and mussels are things I had previously veered away from. There is something about the idea of swallowing the things whole and possibly raw, that I couldn’t quite get past. But after reading this beautiful description of tasting the sea in each and every oyster, of washing it down with cold, crisp wine, I wanted to at least give it a try. And so I started small and painless with mussels (the “poor man’s oyster”) and I was pleasantly surprised. They were quite delicious and not scary at all. While I haven’t worked my way up to raw oysters yet, I am quite content with my consumption of clams and mussels, these days. I recently had a delicious shellfish feast at Bridget and Michael’s house, about which I had promised to tell you.

It was one of those epic meals, the drawn-out ones that last as long as the conversation and food and drinks keep flowing, the kind I imagine having more often if I lived in Europe where the art of leisure is embraced and good food and great company is savored. We started in the early evening firing up the Weber to to toast some cheesy crab bruschetta we bought at the fish market. We roasted broccoli and cauliflower brushed with olive oil and sea salt and ate the remainder raw with Greek yogurt and dill. Michael salt and peppered hand-cut french fries for the oven while I cored and marinated pineapple in coconut milk, cinnamon and vanilla sugar to be grilled for dessert. There was no time table, no method to our madness; we ate what was ready when it was ready standing around enjoying each other’s company and preparing the next course. Later in the night, when the mussels began sizzling and popping on the grill, I whipped up a garlicky broth to dip them in and sop up with toasted rosemary rolls. The clams we ate plain, gathered around the grill, plucking them one by one as they cracked open, careful not to spill the salty brine inside. As the shells piled up and the sun went down, I couldn’t help but think what a fabulous meal I would have missed if it wasn’t for Ernest Hemingway.

Grilled Mussels with Garlic Broth
*This is a very loose recipe as I threw a bunch of ingredients together at the last minute on a whim (no specific measurements) which is usually my favorite way to cook. You can use this as a base, but ultimately add what and how much tastes good to you.

1 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons scallions
1 tsp hot pepper flakes (or to taste)
1/2 bottle of beer (roughly 6 oz of your favorite)
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup butter (4 tbsp)
black pepper to taste

To make the sauce, saute the minced garlic,1 tbsp of chopped scallions and red pepper flakes in the olive oil over medium heat until browned and fragrant. Add the beer and deglaze the pan by scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Allow beer to simmer for 2 minutes before adding the chicken stock and butter. Stir until the butter melts and the sauce begins to simmer again. Add remaining scallions and black pepper to taste (mussels give off their own seawater when opened so salt is not really necessary in the sauce).

To cook the mussels, you must clean them first to avoid any sandy grit when they open. After cleaning, you can throw them on a hot grill on high heat (as we did) or steam them. If grilling, close the lid for 4-5 minutes or until mussels open. Discard any mussels that refuse to open. Place cooked mussels on a platter and pour sauce over them. Serve with crusty bread.


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