Richard Olney’s Infuriating Recipe for Mussels

In an attempt to clean up this blog, I took a look into my drafts. Reader, the terror of this particular corner of the internet strikes fear into my heart. The constant starts and the stops alone kill me! But *sigh*, therapy has taught me “done is better than perfect,” so in that vein, I’ll be publishing some of those drafts, as close to their “draft state” as I can reasonably stomach. Here, then, an entry from June 2015: 

I’m a way-late bloomer when it comes to this food thing. I didn’t go to culinary school, teaching myself from mostly from home. And while I eat at restaurants, it’s usually because a place looks charming, not because of its star-power (though I do try to make it to those, too). My food heroes growing up were Sarah Moulton and Emeril, and then your Julia Childs, your Jacques Pepin. As an adult, I predictably gravitated toward the contessa herself, Ina Garten, like a gay moth to the brightest disco ball.

But I had no idea about Richard Olney. Then, over a year ago , I came across him twice in short order. I first encountered him in the words of John Birdsall’s essay, America, Your Food is So Gay, published in Lucky Peach’s Gender Issue. The piece shed light on the work of Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Olney, three gay men who were influential in shaping America’s food identity. With the exception of Beard and some bits about Claiborne, I otherwise had no idea, about Olney in particular.

Then there was Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970, a narrative weaving of letters between Barr’s great-aunt, the storied food writer M.F.K Fisher and her best pals Child and Beard during one fateful winter in Provence. Olney — a trained painter and self-trained cook in the French tradition — makes an appearance, the book’s main source of friction. What I gleaned didn’t paint him in the best of lights: snobbish, meticulous to the point of condescending… Frankly? He sounded kinda bitchy.

But he also knew his way around a kitchen. When I finished the book and put the essay away, I only thought of Olney peripherally, until Ian bought us the 40th anniversary edition of his book, Simple French Food. 

Let’s just start by saying the title is anything but. “Simple” here does not mean a “set it and forget it” call to arms, but instead, a call for a simple list of immaculate ingredients prepped to the utmost of a cook’s ability, so that the food sings. It is a beautiful book, written in bitingly straightforward fashion with no sympathy for your lack of skills. In short, this book forces you to learn how to cook.

Ian cooked Olney’s “lobster dinner for two,” which included game hens, lobster and a raspberry coulis dessert from the French Menu Cookbook, which — duh — took a lot of work. When we picked up Simple, we thought we’d have a slightly easier time.

Not even remotely true.

Because there aren’t enough hours in a week and too many books to try, we’ve so far only really cooked one recipe: his mussels. You’d think this would be a hoot, as mussels are notoriously easy to prepare. Get your broth game correct and you’ll impart a wealth of flavors depending on your combo of aromatics, seasoning and broth-base. Folks will be impressed by the your Ina-level presentation of homey, elegant open shellfish swimming in bright, savory bath.

Let me reiterate: I. Love. Mussels. From Thai-style mussels, piquant spicy flavors of chiles commingling with creamy coconut milk and bright, citrusy lemongrass, to Belgian moules, with yeasty funky beer adding fruity, biscuity notes to the broth, or even French preparations, sing-songy with acidity from dry white wine, mussels in all forms are good. All easy to make.

Enter Olney.

His preparation of mussels—stuffed with spinach, hardboiled eggs and surprisingly, more mussels—reads simply on paper. There are very few ingredients, and the sauce is a quick preparation of butter, onions and pulpy tomatoes. It’s in the doing that you find out Olney is a real asshole.

Case in point? Bro had me stabbing open 50 or so fresh mussels, only to stuff them with their chopped up brethren, and then? AND THEN having me tie each bad boy up with twine. TWINE!

The elegance of mussels is the simplicity by which the dish basically builds itself. Got a bangin’ broth recipe you want to try? Whip it up any which way you like, add your mussels, wait until they open, and boom! Done. You’ve got a magical seafood dish with a rich liquid for sopping up with crusty, comforting baguette. If Olney were around, I would tell him to go fuck himself (not really, as I think he might be my type?) but I would argue against the merits of his prep.

It took me three goddamn hours to bring this dish to the table. By comparison, all of my other favorite mussel dishes take no more than 30 min, from shopping to slurping up the broth. And, to add insult to injury, the sauce wasn’t even in that good, and the stuffing we worked SO HARD to cram into the mussels I murdered with my knife just fell out into the broth anyway. Infuriatingly, we had the added task of UNWRAPPING our mussel packages that managed to stay open, instead of just, you know, EATING.

This recipe was an unnecessary exercise in rage.

While I respect what Olney has done for the culinary world, both as a cook and as a role model for aspiring LGBT food folks, if this was my first introduction to him, I’d chuck the book out the window.

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