By Kristin O’Keefe
“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life." --Anthony Bourdain
It had "Bee" in its name -- Bumble Bee? Little Bee? The restaurant must be gone now; I can't find it online.
We were visiting our New York-based siblings that summer of 2000. Our gathering spot for the next few hours was a sidewalk table overlooking the sea of humanity and humidity that is Manhattan in June.
We ordered Belgian beer and two pots of mussels. But I drank water and at some point shared our secret: I was pregnant! My brother and sister-in-laws would meet their niece or nephew that winter. The sharing of our three month-held secret meant that we had passed a hurdle, that we stood on the cusp of something huge. Our party ordered more mussels; we toasted and laughed and guessed at what parenthood would be like.
My memory of that evening, all these years later, is grounded in the gaping mouths of our meal: those mussels bobbing in their rich broth, the child-sized forks we used to pry out chewy bites hinting of the sea, followed by the dipping of crusty bread in the garlic-laden sauce. Tiny treasures ruled the night.
That summer of 2000 was pre 9-11, pre-camera phones and social media. I suppose if Facebook existed and I'd posted something from that night we'd know the name of the restaurant, have a photo of the five of us and our pots of mussels.
What I have instead is the memory of one glorious meal.
Flash forward to June 12, 2018. That exciting news we shared? She's seventeen; our daughter just left for a job as a camp counselor in a forested YMCA camp a thousand miles away. She'll leave us next year for real. The other big news of our marriage came two and a half years later. As of this writing he was visiting New York, celebrating the end of middle school with a special grandparents' trip that would include an unforgettable cookie-milkshake concoction.
My husband and I took the quiet night to go to a favorite neighborhood restaurant, the one with the best burgers. Except this time, I ordered the mussels, the ones smothered in shallots, tomatoes, parsley, and yes, plenty of garlic. An extra bowl soon held a pile of discarded blue-black shells.
Truth? I'm as much a fan of the sauce as the mussels. Lifelong Marylander that I am, I usually choose crabs when it comes to seafood. But there is something special about my mussel memories that has nothing to do with their taste or texture.
From my perch on a suburban barstool, the scent of garlic and mussels, the smoothness of those slippery morsels against my tongue, take me right back to that sidewalk café table that held our joy-filled family, the sea of New York City spilling all around us. There was the sense that life was going to change in ways we couldn't imagine -- so we might as well feast and celebrate.
Here's another toast, these many years later, to food, life and Anthony Bourdain, who understood that the meals we remember are, indeed, a combination of the food itself and the context in which it's served. For his understanding that the special meals provide nourishment for years to come we thank you, Tony.
A recipe for Mussels Mariniere, which our daughter makes for special occasions:
2 tablespoons butter
1 leek, cleaned, halved, and chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup heavy cream
1 pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded
2 Tablespoons chopped chives
In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Add the leeks and shallots and stir until softened. Add the lemon juice and reduce by half (I minute). Add the cream and reduce by ¼, about 3 minutes. Add the mussels, cover, and cook until the mussels open, about 5 minutes. Discard any unopened mussels. Sprinkle with chives and remove from heat. Serve with the French bread.
Kristin O'Keefe's essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and Bethesda Magazine. Her first novel is represented by InkWell Management; more of her writing appears at KristinOKeefe.com.