I grew up in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois - in short, corn country. Serious corn country. I didn't see the ocean until I was 10 and didn't eat much fresh seafood until I moved to Boston in my 20's. At first, I was hesitant to try anything beyond seared white fish. Lobsters were intimidating. Scallops were a complete mystery. Shrimp just seemed odd. And then I had my first bowl of steamed mussels.
What really drew me to mussels was the whole experience of eating them. Picking up the purple shell, scooping a bit of broth, slurping out the sweet, tender meat. Even repeatedly wiping your fingers on the napkin seems like a crucial part of the experience. It's so tactile and sensual and all-consuming. For the space of that one bowl, you can do nothing else but eat.
A bowl of mussels has seen me through a lot. It's what I order when I'm eating alone and just want to sit quietly with my book and a glass of wine for an hour. I've eaten them with friends, all our hands reaching toward the bowl as we laugh and talk. I've used the dish to set new friends at ease. I ate mussels the night before a big job interview and had another bowl in celebration when I got the offer a few weeks later. And once after a particularly heart-wrenching break-up, I ate a bowl of mussels nearly every day for a month before I was able to pull myself together and move on.
Lobsters aren't quite so scary anymore, and now I'll eat all the scallops off of my plate and yours, too. But for sheer comfort and belly-rubbing satisfaction, there's no replacing a bowl of mussels. No matter what, I'll always come back to mussels.
(Image: Flickr member foodistablog licensed under Creative Commons)