"Did you get any mussels?," a docent barked at me when I wandered into Coupeville's Island County Historical Museum during this past weekend's Penn Cove Musselfest. "That is, if you like the slimy devils."
Almost 40 years after Pete Jefferds banked on a domestic demand for mussels, opening the first mussel farm in the U.S., Penn Cove Shellfish is the nation's biggest mussel farm. Its products regularly appear on menus from New York and Los Angeles, but chefs in Coupeville say the bivalves are still a hard sell in Penn Cove's hometown.
Penn Cove Musselfest is a model single-item food festival, melding education, entertainment and plenty of opportunities to sample its celebrated food: The weekend's schedule included cooking demonstrations, boat tours of mussel rafts, children's activities and a speed eating contest. The exuberance of attendees, who snapped up all the chowder tasting tickets by noon on Sunday and stood in lengthy lines for bowls of mussel paella, didn't suggest any mussel ambivalence. Yet Alena Stapel, a line cook at Front Street Grill, says her patrons tend to prefer clams.
"We don't do mussel chowder all the time," she says. "People really like clam chowder. It's simple, it's mild. Mussels have that more briny seafood quality to them."
Clam chowder's also a menu mainstay at Knead & Feed, although the restaurant substitutes mussels for its contribution to the annual festival. "Everybody has mussels, so we do it a little different," staffer Amanda Bergstrom says of the popular clam dish, which has been made according to the same recipe since 1974.
Since mussels are more complex than clams, they require a slightly different chowder preparation, Stapel says.
"Our mussel chowder we do with smoked trout rather than salmon because it's really sweet, it gives it a nice base flavor," Stapel says. "We also add basil, which really brings out the sweetness."
Ciao's mussel chowder
Tutoring home cooks in mussel techniques is an important component of new marketing campaigns to increase mussel consumption. Fighting myths about shellfish safety and touting the environmental benefits of aquaculture have helped make mussels more popular, but farmers say there's still room for growth: Belgians annually eat 11 pounds of mussels per capita, while the average American's annual seafood consumption, including all fish and shellfish, is 15.8 pounds.
"This country represents an underdeveloped market for mussels," a sales manager for a mussel producer told SeaFood Business back in 2009. "Mussels are a great source of omega-3s and iron, as well as being inexpensive, nutritious and stable and consistent in terms of supply. There's a lot of opportunity out there."