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Flexing the Native Mussels

January 12, 2010

April 2, 2009

We found a beautiful arrowhead on the beach last summer. It was slender and long, with tight serration – more like a steaknife than a breadknife. If you held it at eye level and looked down its length, there was a slight spiraling to it. One could envision it spinning into its target. Was it intentional or just the signature of a long-ago resident who worked the point a certain way? I can’t say, but we have a nearly identical point in collection – same length, same feel, same spiral. Could they have been made by the same person?

It is just across from the spot on the surfline where the artifact impossibly surfaced, on the inside of Nauset Inlet’s sandy bar, that we discovered the mussels. The cold spring wind was howling when we embarked on our search for a few steamers. I had the baby in the backpack and turned as I walked to keep his face out of the wind. His 10-year old sister trailed behind, looking at rocks and shells, as we quickly traversed the moon-like expanse between ocean and estuary.

The mussels were beached in clumps on the mud, having been strewn about by heavy Easterly winds and the corresponding huge flush of water into the estuary. The steamer holes didn’t show, having been buried by several inches deposit of fresh, frothy mud. So, we walked around gathering up clusters of a dozen or more smooth black bivalves. We spent some time twisting the keepers’ byssal threads apart from rocks, shells, and other mussels and tossing the chaff back into the water, all the while talking about Provincetown Harbor’s mollusk-rich dock pilings and memories of shellfish dinners.

Our crouched, finger-numbing work was punctuated by lapses in conversation, long enough to listen to the gulls argue over their harvests and long enough to think about thousands of years of people doing the same thing in the same place. I get that thought often when fishing. A thousand years is a very long time, and 10,000 represents many generations. Sometimes on a moonlit night when the big fish are feeding, the connection between the hook and the line and the hunter’s determined patience seems to extend back through time to other hunters who perfected their craft under similar skies, with the cologne of the ocean exciting their senses and the feel of the sand under their feet.

When we returned from the clam flats, we found the 10-year-old had dug a small cave in the leeward side of a dune and was comfortably curled up with a pillow made from dried seaweed. We washed the five pounds of shellfish in the ocean, playing tag with icy waves. Driving home we meditated on the serendipity of it all – of looking for something that wouldn’t be found and finding, instead, something equally wonderful. Making-do is sometimes no compromise, and it is nice to remain open to whatever comes your way.

Wequassett Inn’s Mussels Marinara with Tarragon…adapted from the indispensible Cape Cod Fish and Seafood Cookbook by Gillian Drake

40 mussels, soaked, washed and scrubbed if harvested yourself

2 Tbs olive oil

4 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced

1 small red onion

1/2 cup red wine

2 Tbs. chopped fresh tarragon

for the marinara sauce:

6 cloves garlic, pressed or minced

2 Tbs. olive oil

28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes, with juice

1 small yellow onion, diced

2 Tbs. fresh basil

1/4 cup red wine

salt and pepper to taste

To make the marinara, saute garlic and onion in olive oil. Add red wine and cook until it evaporates. Add tomato, basil, salt and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot, and saute garlic and red onion. Add mussels, 1/2 cup of red wine, and two cups of marinara sauce. Cover and cook until the mussels open. Add tarragon and serve in soup bowls, ladling broth over the mussels. Serve with crusty bread. If serving with pasta, spoon some reserved marinara sauce over noodles before laying mussels on top.

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