The minus tide begins at 7 a.m. and we're on the road by 7:20, which is pretty good when you're traveling with Kamari and Abigail. Kamari has the slow truculence of a giant sloth, and Abigail flits around in circles like a flustered moth, but somehow the amount of time wasted usually comes out about even. This morning they are both unusually focused, probably because our expedition speaks to their guiding interests. In Kamari's case, the guiding interest is always free seafood. Abigail is a different story.
Abigail has straight brown hair and a slight British accent, but somehow she still reminds me a little of Dolly Parton. It's not just her rack (which is nice, but not quite of Dolly proportions), but her attitude. She calls everyone darlin' and honey, and she has a magpie's penchant for sparkly objects. The fuzzy pink seat cover of her '94 Honda Civic says "Princess," and somehow when Abigail's behind the wheel, the car does take on a regal air. In Abigail's mind her airstream trailer is a small palace and her Honda is actually a pristine pink Cadillac limousine.
Abigail certainly shares Dolly's childlike enthusiasm: Her conversation is littered with exclamations: "Son of a ditch witch!" and "Holy tits! Look at this quadrangular anemone!" Like Dolly, Abigail swears like a sailor. Unlike Dolly, Abigail's most enthusiastic utterances are reserved for invertebrates. She has an ardent devotion to marine life, particularly mollusks and sea slugs. I suppose it makes sense that Abigail gravitates toward creatures often overlooked. She is something of an underdog herself: She dropped out of the sixth grade, lived on the street for a spell as a teenager, toiled at menial jobs through her 20s, and eventually worked her way through college, graduating at age 35 with a degree in biology from the University of Oregon. She is now a wildlife biologist, who volunteers at the aquarium and gives presentations on marine ecology to interested parties.
Over the years of our friendship, I've been privy to many of Abigail's informal presentations on marine life, and I'm betting she'll find plenty of opportunities today as she shows us around the tidal pools at Seal Rock on Oregon's spectacular coast. Although Abigail mentions various species of edible mollusk we might find, our primary quarry is the California mussel, Mytilus californianus. As we pull into the park's parking lot, Abigail regales us with interesting mollusk facts. For example, "a professor at OSU used the byssal threads of mussels (which they use to cling to rocks) as inspiration for a super strong, nontoxic adhesive. How bloody cool is that?"
In the parking lot we suit up. For me, this involves rolling up my jeans. Abigail contemplates her wet suit, but settles on chest waders instead. She won't be doing any actual foraging today -- she doesn't eat mollusks. I always assumed she was disgusted because she knew too much about their feeding habits or something, but when I press her for details she finally admits, rather sheepishly: "I don't eat them because I like them too much." And this from someone who consumes bacon like it's going out of style.
Kamari and I feel no such sympathy for the mollusk: We are armed with $7 foraging permits (which will be good till the end of the year), utility knives, pliers and plastic buckets. We follow Abigail through a tiny forest where stunted, wind-twisted pines grow from a carpet of false lily of the valley and salal. Around the bend, the path opens up to the Pacific Ocean and the massive basalt formation that is Seal Rock. The expansive tableau is made more awesome by the gilding light of early morning and the intoxicating smell of the sea. The minus tide is in full effect; on the beach far below, family groups pick their way through the tidal rocks.
We climb over driftwood and cross the wet beach to the rocks, which hiss with streams of water from the receding tide. I'm still taking it all in, but Abigail is off -- hopping up and down through rocks and pools in her chest waders and movie star sunglasses. My bucket, purse and slippery flip-flops render me considerably less agile. The towering rocks are silky with sea grass, and I'm amazed at the size of the pools -- I imagined navigating puddles, but now I can see why Abigail considered bringing her wetsuit: The tide pools are huge and brimming with purple starfish and blue-green anemones. We climb on tapestries of seaweed and boulders armored in barnacles.
"I wonder if we'll actually find any mussels?" Kamari muses, sounding worried. Her timing couldn't be better: We're cresting a large rock. Abigail gets to the top first.
"The mussel beds, my dears," Abigail says, flinging her petite wrist in a good approximation of Vanna White displaying a brand-new convertible. As far as we can see, the rocks are covered in shiny black mussels. I look at Kamari. If Abigail really had offered Kamari a brand-new convertible, she would probably look less excited than she does now.
The mussels are not easy to pop out of their dense colonies, and I wish I'd brought gloves. I move from rock to rock, using my utility knife to cut a mussel or two at each stop. It would be easier to remove large clumps, but that method is bad for the health of the colony: In order to grip the rocks, mussels need each other for support. If you take too many from one spot, the colony will eventually cede to the savage force of the surf. To avoid the purported iodine flavor of the larger mussels, Kamari and I are hunting for shells the size of our thumbs. She reaches her legal limit of 72 mussels while I'm still at about 25, which proves that even the great sloth is capable of lightning quick movements when free seafood is involved. Meanwhile Abigail is also proving surprisingly speedy: She's made it all the way out to the farthest point and is barely visible through the morning haze.
I gather only 30 or 40 mussels (I'm not sure I'll actually like them that much), and after protecting the mussels in our buckets with a layer of wet seaweed, we spend the rest of our time at the beach following Abigail around. She discovers two juvenile nudibranchs, and gives us an informative speech while cradling one of the tiny luminous sea slugs in the palm of her glove. She's right: The nudibranch is beautiful, with dayglo orange accents and pearly feelers. "Those are rhinophores. That's how they tell what the hell is going on, since they don't have eyeballs," Abigail explains, adding, "Look! He's sliming across my hand so happily!" I'm reminded of a line from a poem by Mary Oliver: "Every day/I see or hear/something/that more or less/kills me/with delight." As the tide comes in, we say a fond goodbye to Abigail and head for home on the logging roads. The sky is deep blue and the Alsea River shimmers green-gold in the summer sun. Kamari brought her pole and mutters about fishing the whole drive, but we don't stop because we are concerned about the health of the mussels in the backseat; it's actually hot out, for once. We do make a brief stop at an oyster log so I can gather a handful of wild mushrooms; I've been wanting to try oyster mushrooms with actual seafood.
Most at the recipes I look at call for serving the mussels in their shells, in the broth they were cooked in. But I'm remembering the delicious mussel pasta my dad used to make after trips to the coast: a savory sauce made with onions, cream and shelled mussels. I put my metal steamer in a pot of water spiked with cooking wine, pile the mussels on, and turn on the heat. I feel guilty cooking the creatures alive, but I grin and bear it. I'm not about to stop eating seafood, so I guess I'll just have to put the kibosh on the guilt.
Humans have been eating mussels for at least 8,000 years, and when I bite into a bright orange mollusk I gain a complete understanding of its ongoing popularity. I've eaten mussels before, but surely they were never this delicious. I don't know if it's the satisfaction of gathering the food myself or the freshness factor, but the mussel is superlative. The flavor is bright and naturally salty; it's perfect without condiments or spices of any kind. I taste the sea, but the flavor is light and fresh and almost lemony. I'm tempted to eat through the pile of mussels then and there, but I manage to gain control of myself. I put a pot of water to boil for pasta.
While I wait for the water, I shell the mussels, cutting away the byssal threads with kitchen scissors. Next, I rinse the oyster mushrooms and toss them in a dry cast iron pan over high heat. When the liquid is gone, I add butter, onions, garlic and rock sea salt. The onions turn translucent, and the mussels hit the pan, along with a splash of white wine and a generous spoonful of fresh parsley.
The final meal consists of fettuccini with a light cream sauce, crowned with a pile of sautéed oyster mushrooms and bright orange mussels. Though my cream sauce is not perfect (too much white wine, I think), the overall result offers deep satisfaction. Plus, for what it is, it's cheap. The cost of the entire meal, which serves four, comes out to $4.44. We had other reasons to be out at the coast, but if you want to factor in the cost of gas it's more like $10.44 total, or $2.61 a head. Not my cheapest foraged meal, but pretty fancy for under $3. I'm not counting the cost of the permit, because I fully intend to get more mileage out of my $7. I'm already dreaming of butter clams.
Pasta with mussels and cream sauce
Note: The cream sauce is a revised and improved version of the first one I made.
- 8 oz. fettuccini (cooked al dente)
- Parmesan cheese and pepper
- 30-40 mussels
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup white wine
- 1 cup oyster mushrooms
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 green onions
- 3 tablespoon white wine
- Mussels (sans shell)
- 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1½ tablespoons flour
- ½ cup half and half
- ¼ cup stock
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ lemon
- Rinse mussels and steam in mixture of water and white wine. When shells open, turn off heat.
- When mussels are cool enough to handle, remove meat from shells and use kitchen scissors to snip bysall threads from mussels. Put mussels in a bowl and set it aside.
- In a dry cast iron pan, cook oyster mushrooms over medium heat until liquid disappears. Turn down heat and add butter.
- When butter melts, add garlic and onions. Cook for one minute. Add 2 spoonfuls of wine and cook until wine is absorbed.
- Add last spoonful of wine, and the parsley and mussels. Cook until mussels are hot. Set aside, covered.
- Heat a small, thick-bottomed pan over a medium-low flame. Add butter. When butter is melted, add flour. Stir flour and butter for 2 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat milk and stock until it boils. Stir. Add salt. Remove from heat.
- Pour liquid into roux and stir. When mixture begins to bubble, add lemon juice and remove from flame.
- Pour cream sauce over pasta and top with mussels and mushrooms. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and pepper.