Why is the mussel relegated to “second class” status on dining tables in Chile, and virtually ignored in writings of Chile’s leading poet Pablo Neruda?
We made this query in an earlier posting entitled “What’s Wrong With Mussels, Neruda?” As was expected (and hoped for), the article elicited some interesting comments from readers, an objection (correction) to my use of a specific scientific term, and some additional opinion about the perceived status of the mussel, all of which broadens and deepens our understanding of this tightly enclosed mollusk.First, the correction: I referred to the barnacles attaching to the shell of the mussel as a “parasitic” relationship. While barnacles do in fact in certain circumstances become parasitic to themselves and other organisms, that apparently is never the case when they attach to mussels. So, while barnacles as they grow may weigh down the mussel to which they are attached, and surely make them outwardly ugly and less appetizing to the eager consumer, they do no real harm to the mussel. In this case they are not parasites, just fellow travelers.
After I posted “What’s Wrong with Mussels, Neruda?” my wife, Ximena, reminded me that earlier that year (2010), before we departed Chile to return to the U.S., we lunched at what was then a new upscale restaurant in Santiago, and they served a delicious sauté of mussels.
But, good restaurants that feature or consistently offer fresh mussels are still few and far between, even in the face of an abundance of wild and farm raised mussels in Chile. Also, I received a tentative endorsement, from a respected commentator on Chilean food, of my suggestion that Chileans clearly discriminate against mussels when it comes to serving them at their best home table, for guests. Citing his Chilean wife’s reference to the mussel as “too common” (muy ordinario) to be served to important guests at an evening meal at home, he pretty much confirms the lowly status of the mussel in formal Chilean dining.
One reader, in an attempt to get Neruda off the hook, suggested that maybe Neruda was really a “closet mussel lover”, inclined to keep this as his little secret. She suggested that having exposed in his poetry so much about so many other things, he felt the need to keep private at least one personal craving: A love of mussels!! Well, I suppose that is possible, but I am not so quick to give Neruda a pass, especially since in the interim I found another famous Chilean writer who shows absolutely no qualms about extolling the virtues of the mussel: Isabel Allende.
Allende gives away her feelings about the mussel in her typically clear and categorical way, in her tasty book Aphrodite. Specified as a memoir of the senses, or “erotic meanderings” (in her own words), this collection of writings about food and love includes, early on, reference to the key role mussels play as the final ingredient to be added in the preparation of “Panchita’s Curanto en Olla”. Panchita is Isabel Allende’s mother, and a Curanto en Olla is a kitchen-prepared version of the traditional mixture of seafood, pork, potatoes, and chicken, steamed in a hole in the ground layered on a bed of hot rocks and covered with wet seaweed. Similar in many ways to the traditional clambake in the USA, this concoction, curanto, originates on the Island of Chiloé, and is served there and in several seafood restaurants in Puerto Montt and better yet in the neighboring seaside village of Pelluco. When you don’t have a hole in the ground filled with hot rocks, you can cook the whole thing in a large pot (hence, olla), in the home. Allende’s next reference to mussels again ignites my dismay that Neruda made no similar connection, when she states while describing the mussel, “In shape they recall female genitals; in Italy they are called cozza, one of several names for a very ugly woman.” Knowing Neruda, you have to wonder how he missed this.
Allende details several recipes in Aphrodite which she claims are actually Panchita’s, that rely heavily on mussels: Mussels in marinara sauce, mussel chowder (caldillo), and as an important ingredient in fish soup and paella. Her recipe for seafood in cocktail sauce again emphasizes her view that “Mussels are visually very good…..appetizing, and easy to make”. But then, she adds to our suspicions about the status of mussels: “In Chile they are thought of as the oyster of the poor.” So again, there seems to be something “classist” about the treatment of mussels in Chile. They seem to be similar to oysters in taste, but different in the way they are perceived. Is this based only on appearance? Or maybe they are so much cheaper than oysters that they have less appeal?
My interest in the treatment of mussels in Chile is now even greater than before. My early disappointment with Neruda’s indifference has been counterbalanced by Allende’s more extensive attention to the virtues of mussels. Neruda never wrote a cookbook as far as I know, so if he had, maybe he would have payed more attention to mussels. At any rate, there is much more we need to know about the Chilean mussel, its role in history and gastronomical potential in future diets in Chile and internationally. My search for important information about the Chilean mussel probably has been too narrowly focused up to now.
Recently, while reading the Ancient Forest International book, Chile’s Native Forests, by Ken Wilcox, my interest was piqued by a reference to “…the Chonos people, a nomadic canoe culture of the northern fjords of Chilean Patagonia who greeted with compassion the plunderer of the new World. Their culture of dalcas, sealskins, fire, MUSSELS (emphasis mine), mushrooms, huts, harpoons, and the telling of tales around remote hot springs is lost forever.” The Chonos were early shell gatherers in southeast Chiloé, who became culturally extinct by the late 18th century. Evidence of their customs and living habits are found in kitchen middens near Quellón at the southernmost end of the Pan-American Highway, in the Huildad Fjord, Yaldad Fjord and Compu sites. Maybe if we knew more about the Chonos, their culture, and their relationship with mussels we would understand better how mussels are perceived in modern Chile, and why. So, I conclude this with the same proposition with which consultants like I often conclude our reports: We need more information! We will do more field research on mussels, and the people who harvest, prepare, and eat them. To do so we must spend more time in Santiago’s restaurants, Chilean dining rooms, coastal fishing villages, seafood picadas throughout the country, and now, it would seem, southern Chiloé where the Chonos lived. I have just become aware, as I delve into the topic of the Chonos, of a new Chilean winery marketing under the name “Chono”. Based in Isla de Maipo, near Santiago, it is producing reportedly excellent Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and lately Syrah wine. We must research this discovery also. Maybe they make a wine that pairs especially well with a plate of Panchita’s curanto en olla.
Written in McLean, Virginia, on July 17, 2010