One night this summer, I had the kind of late European evening where you are convinced you may never be fed dinner. 9:30 pm had came and went and my stomach was a bottomless black hole with nothing inside of it. "This can't be how people live," I muttered to myself, pacing around my bedroom.
And then, after what seemed like weeks, the calling from downstairs came. It was nearing my fifth grade bedtime but dammit, I was going to have dinner. I rushed downstairs with the speed and anticipation of my chihuahua when she hears a cheese wrapper crackling open. I nearly wept when I saw what was on the table- a big glass bowl filled to the brim with linguine and mussels. Briny, brothy, beautiful pasta and mussels.
Mussels were the first seafood I ever tried and loved. Some of that may have had to do with my eating them at a restaurant in France in a beautiful big red stockpot that had "les moules" written on it in white cursive, piled full of mussels and garlicky white wine broth laced with cream. I scooped the mussels out of their shells and dunked piece after piece of bread in broth and I thought nothing else could be as scrumptious.
Living in Texas doesn't make eating mussels all the time the easiest task. I have exactly one place I can order them in Austin and exactly zero places I can order them in Dallas. So you can imagine my glee when I saw this bowl of pasta- these were two of my favorite foods that I had never deigned to put together myself. My host mom explained that she was supposed to make pasta alle vongole (clam pasta) but the market was out of clams. She settled for mussels instead, and she hoped it was still good.
I loved it so much. It tasted like the sea, and Francesca next to me gushed over how much she loved it too. She told me they would always eat it when they went to the sea in Puglia. At eleven, her food memories were clear. I knew she would keep those food memories for a long time. This sort of pasta in broth was something I had had very rarely, if at all. It felt so earthy, so natural. Like most Italians, my host mom would never use recipes, and this dish tasted like the most natural thing in the world, like the concentrated product of what happens when good ingredients meet good instincts meet love.
When it came time for my farewell dinner, my host mom asked me what I wanted for dinner- something special. I told her the truth, which was that anything I would normally request for a special dinner was what we had been having for dinner for months (i.e. an endless bowl of pasta, maybe accompanied with some cheese and meat). But I told her I loved the pasta with mussels. She thought it was too simple, and she wanted me to pick something extravagant. But it was a special dish to me.
So, at the end of July, we set the table outside and brought out the big glass bowl. My host mom served me a massive tangle of pasta and a generous scattering of clams- small but still so dramatic-looking, ladled a splash of briny juices over the top, and finished it with chopped parsley and olive oil that they siphoned into a bottle from a huge jug in the kitchen. I was, dare I say, happy as a clam.
I made pasta alle vongole myself a few weeks ago and thought of my Italian family every step of the way. It will always, always remind me of them. Mine was kind of too garlicky even for me and certainly not as deliciously brothy (blame that on my dependence on RECIPES!), but I scarfed it down and thought about how special and powerful food can be.
(recipe was a combination of Bon Appetit's and Samin Nostrat's from her book Salt Fat Acid Heat)