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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mothers and Mussels

  Tong Master 
  Originally uploaded by Foodmomiac.

When I was 19 years old, my mother and I traveled to

Paris for a week. She was recently divorced and badly in need of some precious mother/daughter bonding. I was cranky, self-absorbed, obnoxious and going through severe nicotine withdrawal. My mom knew nothing of my pack-a-day habit, and seven days in close quarters provided me with little opportunity to sneak away on my own for a smoke.

The week was tough. Needy mom and cranky, jonesing teenager are not a magical combination. We had quite a few fights, and I’m sure I was less than pleasant 95 percent of the time. Luckily, one night of that tense trip became a pivotal moment in my life, and will forever be a special memory for both my mother and myself. It was the night we ate at the eponymous Bernard Chirent.

We were staying at a typically small and charming Paris hotel on the right bank, just two blocks off the Seine. Our last day was a tiring one, filled with museum hopping, last minute souvenir shopping and multiple arguments. By nightfall, my mother and I were too exhausted to venture far for dinner. We set off down our street to find something nearby and casual.

From the outside, the restaurant didn’t look like much, but the menu was interesting, and the prices were reasonable, so we ventured inside. The interior was fancier than either one of us had expected it to be. The tables were covered in white linen, and the room had an austere, almost minimalist look to it. The decor was a bit worrisome to me, as a quiet, more upscale restaurant would likely require more mother/daughter conversation than a casual place with plenty of hustle and bustle. However, it was too late to turn back.

As we walked to our table, I took note of a Troisgros apprenticeship certificate hanging on the wall. I vaguely recognized the name, perhaps from Gourmet, but I didn’t realize what that certificate really meant. I have always loved food, but back then I didn’t know much about it. I read the food section of The New YorkTimes, watched the Frugal Gourmet and I had an adventurous palette. At 19, that was as far as it went.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have been far less surprised by the meal and service that we received. A former apprentice in the Troisgros kitchen, Chirent was well versed in creating a food experience to remember. Indeed, the most remarkable part of the evening was the attention we received from Monsieur Chirent himself, and the way it smoothed out some of the tension between my mother and myself.

Sadly, I don’t recall many of the details of the meal. I didn’t journal my food experiences then as diligently as I do now. The only dish I remember is the moules marinieres. While they were delicious, it is not the flavor of these mussels that I recall so intensely. What still resonates with me is the experience of eating them. It is an experience that I’m lucky enough to revisit every time I eat one, even to this day.

After watching me and my mother attempt, unsuccessfully, to elegantly eat our mussels with a fork, the suave and handsome Chirent came over to our table and offered to show us the proper way to eat a mussel; the French way to eat a mussel. Even now, nearly 12 years later, I can still feel how hot and red my cheeks became during the intimate demonstration that followed. Chirent asked me to pick up an empty shell from my plate and, much as a man might help a woman learn to shoot pool, or swing a golf club, he stood slightly behind me and helped me use the shell as tongs to gently procure a new mussel out of its shiny black shell. He then leaned forward and smiled, telling us that we would now be able to forever eat mussels as the French do.

As he left the table, my mom and I looked at each other and smiled widely. The tension was gone. In its place was a shared giddiness at the attention we had just received from this sexy chef, an excitement about the rest of the meal to come and an understanding that, despite our fights and squabbles, we were going to be just fine.

I think about that night in Paris every time I eat mussels, but it was brought back to me in even greater relief when I went out to dinner two years ago with the then two-and-a-half-year-old Dylan.
We were at a casual restaurant in the Little Italy section of Windsor,Ontario, just across the river from Detroit. Dylan had always been an adventurous eater, but had recently entered a finicky phase, suddenly declaring that she no longer liked spinach, and insisting that I serve her macaroni and cheese after I had slaved for hours over something decidedly more gourmet. It was discouraging, to be sure, but I tried not to let it get me down. I had faith that she’d grow out of this little phase and become the voracious and bold eater that her dad and I had set out to raise.

When we ordered mussels for our appetizer that night, we did so for the adults only, figuring that the newly picky Dylan would just grab some cucumbers from the salad. She’s a curious little kid though, and when something looks interesting, you can bet that she’ll want to be a part of the action. In this instance, novelty trumped pickiness. The tong method of mussel eating must have intrigued Dylan, as she asked to try it for herself. I showed her what to do, and let her pick out a set of tongs for herself.

What followed was a glorious display of a little gourmet in training. Dylan dug into those mussels like nobody’s business, expertly using her shell tongs and pausing only to dip some bread in the garlicky broth.

I was literally brought to tears, and was suddenly transported back to that night at Bernard Chirent. This time, though, in a prime example of life going full circle, I was able to see the night through my mother’s eyes as well as my own.



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