The fish chowder served in most public eating places, even here in Down East Maine where they ought to know better, is so bad that I never order it unless I’m suffering an attack of the mean blues. Why I eat restaurant-style fish chowder in such situations is simple. It gives me something specific on which to focus a bilious attention.
What I mean by “restaurant-style fish chowder” is: fish chowder with the color and consistency of slightly liquefied library paste, gluey enough so a spoon will almost stand up in it, made of an insufficiently cooked white sauce and riddled with questionable bits of seafood, a few slivers of old-tasting potato, and fragments of disagreeably sweet onion. This, my daughter the chef tells me, is more often than not made of something called “chowder base, ” sold by restaurant-supply outfits to be mixed at the point of service with water — or with milk in more high-end establishments. This is the only chowder many unfortunates will ever know.
And so it was, at the end of a long and extremely cold winter of many discontents, that I found myself down on the docks in Portland, Maine, on the first true day of spring, looking at the offerings in a brightly painted fish shop called “Free Range Fish.” I was attracted by the hand-lettered sandwich board on the sidewalk advertising wild mussels. I’m not a huge fan of mussels, but the fact that these were wild was seductive. You almost never see wild mussels anymore unless you harvest them yourself — not easy given that so much of our shore frontage has been rendered off-limits by development. I seem to suffer from a genetic tic that responds uncritically to the word “wild” when associated with foodstuffs. Wild game, wild mushrooms, wild asparagus, wild fiddleheads, wild mussels — it doesn’t make much difference what it is, the mere fact that it’s wild (hence, in a certain sense, free) calls to something in my stingy Yankee blood.