What's the polite way to eat mussels? I have often heard you're supposed to use one empty shell to tweeze the mussel out of another shell, but that seems a little inelegant. Also sometimes mussels come with a small fork so I'm wondering if the shell method is more informal. With either method, when the mussels are cooked in a sauce, how is one supposed to eat the sauce?
And what about oysters on the half-shell? Other potentially messy shellfish? Thanks!
Stumped by Shellfish
Dear Stumped by Shellfish,
Of course you're stumped. Shellfish is tricky. It is often served in its shell, raising the question both of 1) how to get the edible part from the plate or bowl to your mouth and 2) how to manage the detritus created along the way. It's obviously completely impractical to observe the general guideline of not touching your food with your hands.
I love nothing more, when I'm in France, than going out for moules frites and using an empty mussel shell as a pincer with which to pry out other mussels and pop them in my eager mouth.
And that's cool there, particularly at the kind of casual places that tend to serve the dish. It's not, unfortunately, quite the thing in the U.S. I'm sure many readers will disagree (and I know how I eat them when I make them at home), but proper etiquette asks that diners use a fork to pull a mussel from its shell and bring it to their mouth.
A spoon or a piece of bread on the end of a fork in order to dip it into the sauce and then into one's mouth is the way to get at the sauce. At home or at super casual places, many people are going to choose to forego the fork-in-piece-of-bread. Fine by me, just pay attention and dip one bite of bread at a time to avoid the dreaded double-dipping.
As with all shellfish served in its shell, it is perfectly appropriate to use your hands to pick up the shell in order to then use a fork to remove the mussel from it.
The same basic method—pick up, use fork to remove the edible part and put into mouth—holds for all seafood, like crab legs and oysters on the half-shell. If adding sauce to a clam or oyster, use a small spoon to put a bit on the item before removing it from its shell. (I will go on the record, however, as someone who love the liquor that sits in the shell of a well-shucked oyster so much that even though it isn't proper, I will slurp an oyster and its juices right from shell no matter how fine and fancy the setting, etiquette be damned. The joy this brings the oyster-lover has, in my opinion, made this fully acceptable behavior at establishments that advertise themselves as oyster bars, which despite a buff and a shine in recent years, are traditionally casual places.)
Once shells are empty, there is often an empty vessel provided in which to put the spent shells. If there isn't simply put the empty shells on your plate (not back on the communal platter, if there is one).
For the record, I prefer to eat seafood in the most casual of settings—a picnic table with a view of water is ideal— among like-minded people who are willing to dig in and get their hands dirty if necessary as they shuck oysters, go at boiled shrimp, crack grilled crab, dismantle a lobster, or tackle a clam bake, but who never, ever, under absolutely any circumstances, double-dip.
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About the Author: Molly Watson honed her ability to guide others in tricky situations by telling her little brother the best way to do everything. See what she has to say beyond dining at Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. Catch her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.