The farm’s front yard is a cove and a shellfish smorgasbord. Steamers, mussels and tiny snails known as wrinkles all live happily together among the worms, black-backed gulls, bald-headed eagles and the rest of the shoreside gang.
I’m happiest when low tide is an hour after the rosy fingered dawn climbs above our neighboring Canadian island. Pull on my rubber boots. Squish-squash across the muddy flats, five minutes to the secret wild mussel bed, known only to me and a handful of others, none of whom seem to eat the blue-black bivalve. But I love ’em. They’re much better than steamer clams, which require digging and pawing at sandy blow holes. Real work.
Mussels are easy. Leave the ones above the tide line for the birds. Stand in a foot of water. Bend at the waist. Reach just below the surface of the still sea. Pick ’em, pluck ’em — like submerged apples, bunched like grapes. I drop the small and big ones, a selective catch-and-release. The rest end up in my net bag. In 45 minutes, I could fill a five-gallon bucket (I never take that many). Soak ’em in cornmeal for at least a couple hours to get rid of the grit and pearls, then steam with garlic, crushed red pepper and the cheapest white wine. Delicious. Free for the taking.
But not now. Not today. And not for awhile, perhaps, thanks to the misnamed “red tide,” which is not tidal and rarely visible, at least to the naked eye. The dinoflagellates of the Alexandrium tribe are correctly known as “harmful algal blooms.” Those words take time to say, however, and we are lazy people who are always in a hurry. Filter-feeding shellfish exposed to harmful algal blooms, like my pals the mussels, become poisonous when eaten by predators. Paralysis or death could be for dessert.
Maine commercial shellfish is rigorously tested, because we can’t have a major industry going around causing paralysis and death. Stupid foragers, however, can find themselves at risk. Last month, Down East but south of here, a group of people got sick after eating mussels found growing on an old rope dangling from a wharf in an area closed to shellfish harvesting. Last summer, a lobsterman — also just south of here — found a supper’s worth of mussels attached to a rusty oil drum he spotted bobbing near the Down East island that bears his surname. His whole family ended up in the hospital.
My instinct: stay away from food attached to oil drums and old pieces of rope. Plus, even being someone who usually doubts every governmental utterance, I trust their harmful algal bloom warnings and will wait until the all clear is sounded. That will happen when the ocean turns cold and the bloom drifts out to sea, pushed by winds and currents, hopefully by late summer or early fall.
When society collapses, I probably won’t be able to duplicate the stringent testing done by the state. Too busy shooting trespassers. Not enough time to collect mussel meat samples and render them, using a blender and centrifuge, into a fluid I’d have to inject into a pregnant female laboratory mouse, then sit around waiting to see if she complains of paralysis or death.
For at least a millennium, the native people were aware of harmful algal blooms. How did they learn to avoid shellfish during the warmer months? It’s a mystery. (They did, however, share this knowledge with the European invaders. Big mistake.) Did the Indians feed mussels to their tribal pet guinea pigs? Or were there ancient clambakes that sometimes resulted in mass death, but tipped off the survivors? Perhaps they watched the ducks. Old timers Down East are said to stop eating mussels when the eiders don’t feed on shellfish, because the birds know when a harmful algal bloom has arrived.
So when society breaks down, remember this: during months without an “r,” stay away from the mussels, clams and scallops. Steam the wrinkles instead. The little mollusks are herbivores and aren’t affected by harmful algal blooms and taste great dipped in butter.
Which means you either need a cow or a friend with a cow.