Elegy for a Mollusk

Published in Raven Chronicles, September 2012

 Elegy for a Mollusk

Farewell clams and mussels. And what else? What about abalone, cockles, cuttlefish, limpets, octopus, oysters, scallops, sea cucumber, sea urchin, snails, squid, winkles and whelks? Yes, all of them. I pass through the five stages of grief with only the faintest whimper; I go from loss directly to acceptance, without stopping at denial, anger, bargaining or depression. But I relish my memories and the vicarious pleasures they bring as I pen my funeral oratory for these now-dead-to-me sea critters.

 

Food ecstasy is what I call it, that burst of elation like when I first tasted the sublime salmon soup at Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar. Fresh, wild salmon poached in a savory clam stock, pungent with red pepper flakes and lots of crushed oregano, and surrounded by a scattering of mussels lounging on their shells. “Are you OK with garlic?” the server had asked when I ordered the dish, a warning of what was to come. “Bring it on,” I said, “the more the better.” And indeed it’s the garlic that all but shouts at you on its way from the kitchen, and the garlic that overtakes your senses when the steaming bowl is set in front of you: garlic aioli melting over a saucer-sized crouton, and bits of garlic infusing every spoonful of the fragrant liquid. This must be what the gods feast on atop Mount Olympus, I thought. I accompanied it with fresh sourdough bread and thin, crispy fries to dip in Garlic Power hot sauce, and a pint of Red Hook, Seattle’s home brew.

I’ve been to Seattle many times since that trip twenty years ago and have found my way to Emmett Watson’s at least once during every visit. My husband was living in Seattle when we met there through a mutual friend—in fact it was on that same trip, memorable all around—and on one of our first meals together I introduced him to my new-found treasure. He was suitably impressed, passing that first critical test of compatibility.

I was happy to find a Pike Place Market cookbook that included the salmon soup, but I was skeptical when I saw that this “version for home cooks” called for two cloves of garlic and a quarter-teaspoon of oregano for four servings. Nuh uh! I knew it was more like a whole bulb of garlic and a handful of oregano. One of the restaurant staff laughed when I asked about the measurements and confirmed my suspicions that the recipe had been tamed to a feeble imitation of its true essence. “Go with your instincts,” he said. “Don’t hold back.” So I adapted the recipe to my own tastes. Along with generous measures of garlic, oregano and fiery chile flakes, I upped the quantity of mussels, making them full partners with the salmon, rather than a discreet garnish. I found half-gallon cans of clam broth at a restaurant-supply store so that I wouldn’t go into debt on the pricey little eight-ounce bottles in the markets, and I stirred in a generous splash of sherry before spooning on my own lemony garlicky aioli. It’s a dish to die for.

Or almost. I’ve savored my last; the nectar of the gods will never pass my lips again.

 

Don and I fly from San Diego to Seattle every year or two to visit his brother and sister-in-law, John and Patty, in their spacious, gracious antique-filled home on Queen Anne Hill with spectacular views across the Sound. Patty readies their guest room for us with the nubbly, much-washed, pastel-striped flannel sheets that I love in summer or winter and an array of fondly and discriminately selected books and magazines. John adds the finishing touch, a decanter of cognac. We call it our favorite B&B.

One mild September evening the four of us plus Don’s sister Carolyn and her adult children gather for a family dinner. Patty and I are happy to escape to the intimacy of the kitchen, sipping sherry as we scrub clams, assemble veggies for the salad, consider herbs for the dressing, and catch up with each other’s lives while the others chat over drinks and enjoy the sunset from the front balcony. It had been a full and satisfying day: a ferry trip to Bainbridge Island, a stroll through the magnificent gardens of the Bloedel Reserve, lunch at a waterside restaurant. Now we construct a feast: kettles of steamed Littleneck clams, a big salad with fresh produce from the neighborhood Farmers’ Market, lots of crusty French bread, Pinot Noir and Viognier our red and white wine choices. We’d picked blackberries that afternoon, profuse on massive spreading vines in an empty lot a couple of blocks away, to serve over vanilla bean ice cream for dessert.

We gather around John and Patty’s big oak table and feast; we eat and drink and talk and laugh a lot and eat some more. Everything’s perfect; the clams are delectable in a wine and onion broth. Bowls are refilled, butter passed around, baguettes demolished, bottles drained. We luxuriate in the warmth of the occasion, the company, the food and wine. We finish dinner and are contemplating dessert when I start to feel a little woozy, my stomach starting to cramp. Oh well, I think, too many clams, too much wine. I don’t say anything—surely it will pass—but it gets worse. I become dizzy and nauseated. Hot and sweaty, chilled and prickly, all at once. The word “clammy” comes to mind. Carolyn notices my distress and says I look pale: “Are you OK?” I admit I’m feeling a little weird. “Come lie down,” Patty says, and I stand up to go to the living room. The next thing I know I’m on the floor in a heap, and they’re all hovering over me, alarm on their faces.

I recover quickly and assume I’ve just eaten a bad clam. It happens, and just one can make a person wretchedly ill. The experience causes me to have an aversion to clams and mussels both for a time, but a couple of months later I order brodello at an Italian restaurant. The delicately-spiced tomatoey broth with an assortment of seafood, including a few clams and mussels, sounds like an appealing light meal. Shortly after lunch I’m driving, several miles from home, when I begin to feel ill. The symptoms aren’t severe, but they’re unmistakably similar to those of my Seattle misadventure, and I quickly pull off the road into a strip mall. I buy a ginger ale at a 7-11 and sip it in the car, sitting quietly until the sweet fizzy drink settles my stomach, and the waves of dizziness pass. I’m able to drive safely home.

 

What on earth is happening to me? I’d love to dismiss it as a fluke, but I can’t, not twice. I can’t blame a second episode on food poisoning from a tainted clam or mussel. I stop eating all shellfish while I start doing research that soon confirms my suspicions. I don’t need a doctor to tell me what appears obvious: I’d had allergic reactions and symptoms of anaphylactic shock. But it was so sudden; why, and why now?

As early as 400 B.C.E., Hippocrates observed people who went into shock after eating shellfish. Food allergies were scientifically validated in the nineteenth century, followed by the coining of the words “allergy” and “allergen” from the Greek allos, a changed or altered state, and ergon, reaction. After breakthroughs in cellular immunology and the discovery of specific antibodies in the 1940s and ‘50s, food allergies were isolated for study. Now they are said to be on the rise in Western populations, with reported cases doubled over the past ten to twenty years. The numbers have been hard to pin down due to ambiguities between allergies and non-allergic sensitivities and the fallibility of self-reporting and—I’m not the only one—non-reporting. Now, with information increasingly widespread, the question arises as to whether the higher figures are an actual trend or a result of more accurate identification and reporting.

The nonprofit Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) was founded in 1991 to provide educational resources and support for medical professionals, health educators, and allergy sufferers. The organization’s website lists eight foods that are said to account for eighty to ninety percent of all food allergies: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. These last two claim close to seven million reported cases in this country, more than two percent of the adult population. Narrowing my focus even further, I learn that the majority of shellfish allergies, some sixty percent, make their first appearance in adulthood, and they’re for life; they don’t go away like many childhood allergies. It appears I have two intricate threads to follow to better understand my condition: shellfish allergy itself and the phenomenon of adult-onset allergies. I see them intertwined like the strands of the double helix.

The question about late-onset allergies is, of course, why? What incites them to act up, in many instances after decades, after a lifetime without them? Experts say that our allergies are always present: we’re born with them, and it’s our tolerance that alters over time. Reactions start to emerge when symptoms are no longer held in check by lymphocytes in the immune system. Putting it simply, food allergies are exacerbated by a weakened immune system, and as we age our immune function diminishes. Along with everything else, sooner or later; wouldn’t you know it’s another consequence of getting old. The population is aging—the Baby Boom working its way through the python—and as a result adult-onset allergies are on the rise. J. Alfred Prufrock intones, “I grow old, I grow old,” and it only now occurs to me that he may be referring to an occurrence of an adult-onset food allergy when he asks, “Do I dare to eat a peach?”

There are still countless unknowns. Some investigators have suspicions about the extent to which environmental aspects may be culpable. Their role in respiratory ailments and allergies is acknowledged, but published research is inconclusive, or no one’s ready to come forward yet, about what external factors might contribute to the dramatic escalation of food allergies reported in later life. It makes sense that our aging organs are more susceptible to contaminants in the air we breathe and in our water and food sources, and to the ingestion of chemicals and preservatives. I believe that the longer we inhabit the earth and imbibe its impurities, get zapped by its rays, the more vulnerable we are to ill effects, which demonstrate themselves in myriad new ways. I don’t accept coincidence as a rationale, and the Baby Boomers are the victims, not the cause.

But why shellfish? Apparently it’s all about the glycoproteins in foods; those in shellfish enhance their likelihood as allergens and the timing of their emergence. Understanding how they work is beyond me, and to complicate matters further, all shellfish are not created equal. There are skeletal and molecular differences between the two primary families, mollusks and crustaceans, and it appears that allergy to one group does not presume a similar sensitivity to the other. Crustaceans, but not mollusks, rank high among allergens in the frequency and severity of their reactions. People who discover an allergy to shrimp, for instance, have a 75% chance of also being allergic to crab, lobster, and other crustaceans. Allergies to mollusks are more random; a reaction to one or more isn’t necessarily indicative of being allergic to others. With new questions arising out of each answer, I at least have determined that mollusks—or certain mollusks—are the culprits in my case.

 

So arrivederci, mussels and clams. And abalone, cockles, cuttlefish, limpets, octopus, oysters, scallops, sea cucumber, sea urchin, snails, squid, winkles and whelks. I’d gotten off easy with two relatively mild experiences, but it was enough to frighten me, and further experimentation doesn’t seem worth the risk. Oysters seem closest to clams and mussels, and I swear off them without hesitation. I’ll miss those briny darlings; how I loved to slurp them from their shells by the dozen with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of Tabasco or horseradish. I had eaten scallops and squid without any reaction during the time between the two incidences, so they seemed to be safe, but for how long? “When in doubt, do without” seems a safe course of action. Crustaceans don’t seem to be a problem, I find, as I inch my way back with a single shrimp, then more. But I’m wary of them now, too uneasy to enjoy them as I once did. My research findings challenge my innate good sense; I can’t ignore them or the unanswered questions, so the rational recourse is to eliminate all shellfish from my diet before they eliminate me. I’m not a gambler. I don’t order puffer fish at the sushi bar or sample suspicious-looking mushrooms in the wild. What’s the point? I can live without them, both literally and figuratively.

My nearest and dearest offer condolences. They expect me to descend into anguish over my enforced deprivation. “Do you crave them?” friends ask me. “You must be devastated.”

“Poor dear,” says my husband; “what agony!”

Well, no. Let’s put it in perspective. In Regeneration, the first novel in Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy, British officers suffering from battlefield trauma are treated in a Scottish hospital, pumped up and readied to go back to the front. One of them relates an emotionally-wrought incident to a psychiatrist, who responds, “You must’ve been in agony.” No, says the young man: “Agony’s lying in a shell-hole with your legs shot off. I was upset.” Exactly. I was saddened and upset but not distraught.

 

In the San Diego beach community where I grew up, my father and his fishing buddies used to wade out during low tide in months with an “r” and pluck mussels off the rocks. He would bring home a sackful and dump them in the kitchen sink, the shells black and purple, gnarled and gritty. We would take turns scrubbing them with a fingernail brush and pulling out the beards with pliers while my mother ran a few inches of water in the big cast-iron stew pot and brought it to a boil. Dad would scoop up the mussels by handfuls and drop them in gently so as not to break the shells; I recall the rhythmic percussive sound, like castanets, as they clattered softly together. I don’t remember what else they added, maybe onions and garlic and herbs; it probably wasn’t necessary as the mussels made their own aromatic broth as they steamed. When the shells yawned open, we ladled them, plump and succulent, into big soup bowls, added lemon and Tabasco, and ate them with lots of bread for sopping up the juices.

In my early twenties I lived in a horseshoe-shaped building, eight apartments occupied entirely by young singles. We used to get together frequently in the central courtyard for food and drink. Pete—a lifeguard in the upstairs corner unit—was a diver, and abalone were still legal and plentiful then; a successful outing would yield enough for a feast. He would shell and clean and slice them into thin steaks and put us to work with a meat mallet, pounding them into tender submission. He dipped them first in beer, then in Ritz crackers finely crushed with a rolling pin before sautéing them in butter. Simple but exquisite, the flavor is a distant sense memory, an elusive siren song that I can call up for purposes of description—rich but light, chewy but tender, not fishy at all, and with a singular sweetness, unlike anything else—but it’s long evaded my taste buds.

Years later my restaurant choice for birthdays and anniversaries was Pacifica Grill. The black mussels were the highlight of every meal, steamed in a broth of garlic, tomatoes and herbs. They primed the palate for the seared ahi or mustard catfish that would follow. The Grill’s original chef, Neil Stuart, published a cookbook after the restaurant closed—Pacifica Blue Plates, one of the few autographed books I own—and it included the treasured recipe, an accurate rendering. I prepared those mussels every Friday night for some years, until I foreswore cooking on Friday nights and switched to pizza.

There’s more. There’s the bouillabaisse, chock-a-block with all kinds of fish and shellfish, that a friend and I used to make, trying to mirror the dish we swooned over at a Mediterranean bistro on my first trip to Europe. The moules frites that was my dining choice for years at French restaurants here and abroad. Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans, where I would climb up on a wooden stool at the counter, and the guys would keep shucking and serving oysters until you signaled them to stop. The “Coo-Coo Clams,” a specialty at Tomaso’s in San Francisco, baked in a blistering-hot oven in olive oil, wine and herbs, and served still bubbling in their roasting pan; the clams in garlic black bean sauce at Yuet Lee in Chinatown—you sucked the salty sauce off each shell before savoring the waiting clam.

Oysters and mussels and clams, oh my. All that is at an end now, but life goes on. At least that’s my plan. I’m alive and healthy, and there are many more delectable treats that I can still enjoy: salmon and yellowtail and all kinds of fish grilled or pan-seared or fresh and raw at the sushi bar, anchovy pizza, caviar on lox, dozens of cheeses, garlic till it’s oozing out my pores, sun-ripened tomatoes and tender spring asparagus, fresh-picked strawberries, dark bittersweet chocolate. Imagine being allergic to chocolate. Or garlic. I count my blessings. I relish them.

 

My sleuthing isn’t finished. I’m still curious about the whole food allergy scourge that seems to have ballooned into epidemic proportions. There they were, and we didn’t hear much about them until newspaper and magazine articles started to appear with growing frequency. Food allergies became a topic of interest and discussion, and we’ve seen waves of attention on lactose intolerance, wheat allergies and, more recently, gluten problems, but these are usually slow-reacting, less dramatic allergens and sensitivities. More prominent was the peanut panic, which burst onto the scene with headlines and horror stories of quick-striking, life-threatening incidents—people going into shock from a whiff of an open package on a plane or from eating products manufactured on equipment that processed peanuts.

Shellfish stories were equally terrifying. Death by shrimp cocktail: is there an Agatha Christie plot lurking there? Last year a story was broadcast around the world about a Vietnamese woman who was reported to have aged fifty years in a matter of days due to an extreme, rapid-onset allergy to seafood. The narrative and photos were horrendous, hard to believe, but real or scam, it’s enough to put one off one’s scampi. Some susceptible people avoid seafood restaurants entirely for fear of cross-contact; shellfish protein can become airborne in the steam released during cooking. Consider the anxious Midwestern blogger who posted an SOS: “I have shellfish allergies: where can I eat in Boston?” It seems she’d gone to an oyster bar with friends, planning to order something safe, but her throat got scratchy and her breathing labored as soon as she walked in the door. Asian restaurants pose risks too—MSG isn’t the only thing to be wary of—the flavoring bases used to make sauces may include oyster extract or other shellfish products.

After living with my condition for several years, I finally think to mention it at my annual checkup. My doctor recommends that I see an allergist to get tested. If the allergy is confirmed—it isn’t a certainty, she says—I most likely will be prescribed Epinephrine in the form of an EpiPen, a portable emergency dose that you inject into your thigh at the first sign of anaphylactic shock. I continue to resist, believing that I’m in control, but there are risks I can’t manage. For example, manufacturers are not required to list the presence of mollusks on ingredient lists, since mollusks are less common allergens than crustaceans. If Emmett Watson’s were to produce canned salmon soup, they wouldn’t have to specify that it’s made with clam stock. Food allergies don’t respond to allergy shots, and possible cures are still in the test-tubes. So I keep that referral, as well as the option of wearing a Creative Clam Shellfish Allergy Medical Alert button, wristband or dog tag. But there’s hope: these later-onset allergies, especially shellfish and peanuts, are on the radar, and we’ll have the Baby Boomers to thank when something comes along.

 

On our last trip to Seattle, John picks us up at the airport. We always arrive around noon, and John always drives us straight downtown to Pike Place Market for lunch at Emmett Watson’s. This ritual started as a special treat for me years ago when I introduced him to the place, but now he’s hooked on it too.

Don looks at me out of the corner of his eye as he scans the menu printed on a brown paper bag. “Would it bother you if I order the salmon soup?” he asks.

“Of course not,” I reply with exaggerated sweetness, my eyes narrowing to a menacing slit. I don’t mind. Really. And he knows that, but he doesn’t order it anyway. He has his usual fish and chips, and I’m happy as a clam—where did that phrase come from, I wonder—with my grilled salmon.

My daughter and I like to go out for happy hour wine and hors d’oeurves; it’s our favorite mother-daughter quality time. At a trendy new enoteca in San Diego’s East Village, we start off with focaccia stuffed with cheese and mushrooms to share. Jennifer turns to me with a sigh of regret, or maybe it’s pity, though I don’t know whether for herself or for me:

“These mussels sound so good … but you can’t eat them….”

This is what it must be like for recovering alcoholics when their companions order a drink. “So order them, silly,” I say, assuring her that I don’t mind. “I’ll get the cauliflower in garlic and wine cream sauce. Mmmm.”

The dishes arrive at our table, aromas mingling and pungent, garlic and butter, thyme, rosemary, marjoram. We eat contentedly, and she admits, almost apologetically, that the mussels are the best she recalls having since Pacifica Grill.

“Wow,” I say, “they must be good.”

She tears off a piece of bread, mushes it around in the juices, grabbing up a whole clove of garlic, and hands it to me. I wrap my mouth around it, inhaling the winy, briny essence, savoring the flavors.

Is it fabulous? Yes.

Do I want more? Yes.

Well, no, but.…

 

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