When I was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, at 24, it was a shock. I'd been going to various doctors and specialists to treat many of the disease's associated symptoms, but no one had ever quite put the pieces together. One day, after hearing the word "prediabetes" on some crappy morning TV show, I Googled it, clicked through to the actual "diabetes" page on Wikipedia, and discovered the exact issues I'd been suffering from, collected into a few neat bullet points. I called my doctor's office, scheduled an appointment, and—after admonishing me that I was "too skinny" to have diabetes—my doctor gave me the simple fingerprick test, which came up at a whopping 279 mg/dl. I walked out of Group Health's Capitol Hill campus with a diagnosis of type 1, a backpack bursting with prescriptions, and absolutely no idea just what the fuck I was supposed to do next.
I called my mom and when she picked up, I said, "Mom, I have diabetes. It's the serious kind, the kind that doesn't go away."
"No," she said. "That can't be right. You can't have diabetes."
"It is right, and I do, " I replied.
She paused for a long time.
"What can I do?" she asked, beseechingly. "I'm here for you."
She was, in fact, in London, traveling for business, and I was her employed, self-sufficient adult son, walking around on a chilly, clear November morning in Seattle trying to figure out what I could still eat for brunch. There was absolutely nothing she could do, but moms can't help but mother. Calling her to laconically deliver bad news that she could do nothing about was probably a shitty thing to do, in retrospect, but Twitter does pretty much the same thing to more people every day so I don't feel all that bad. Anyway, my answer was a resigned, "Nothing, I guess. I just live with it now. I just wanted to tell you."
And I have lived with it, obviously, or I wouldn't be writing this. But it wasn't easy at first. I was then and will always be stubbornly determined to deal with it myself, and I try to keep any issues I have in doing so to myself. I am not shy about discussing it—people love to ask you about your insulin pen in much the same way they love to rub pregnant women's bellies without permission, and you get used to that—but this column is perhaps the first time I've talked openly about how fucking frustrating and terrifying and unfair having diabetes can feel sometimes.
It certainly felt that way a lot more back then, as the act of eating, one of the most fundamental pillars of our warm-blooded existence, had gone from a welcome pleasure to a terrifying minefield in the space of a five second glucometer countdown. My relationship with food, previously my best friend, was suddenly very complicated.
Snacks were always a big part of that previously pleasant relationship. Perhaps Michael Pollan would disagree, but I feel like snacks are an essential part of life. Perhaps not nutritionally, but emotionally they most certainly are. Sometimes we need a moment. Sometimes we need a macaron and a latte in the middle of a really terrible day or an hour alone with a bag of chips and a screen to turn our brains off or the requisite tub of ice cream after a breakup. Pick your poison. However, when you have type 1 diabetes, snacking is a fraught experience, as almost every familiar snack in this carb-loving country is carby as all fuck.
Carbohydrates are the food molecule most quickly metabolized into blood glucose, and regulating one's concentration of blood glucose is what diabetes management is all about. You're going for a nice, mellow sine wave, basically, never dipping too low or climbing too high. Low means sweats, anxiety, potential siezure, and long-term brain damage. High is the slow death, incrementally breaking down your small blood vessels, the myelin sheathing around your nerves, your kidneys, and so on seemingly ad infinitum. Therefore, eating carbs is complicated. You have to feed your system the exact right amount of insulin, the hormone that acts as a key for glucose, opening the cell wall to allow it into your cells so it can be converted into ATP (energy!) by your mitochondria. If you underestimate that amount, you go high. If you overestimate, you might wake up on your kitchen floor in a pool of your own sweat. If you fuck up the timing, same deal.
After my diagnosis, while I was still figuring out the complicated tightrope act that is dosing, I was scared to snack. I wanted those little moments of indulgence so badly, those little pleasures that the rest of the world enjoys without a second thought, but I didn't want the panic attack that came with. And that, to bring this back to the tangible subject of our column, is why I love smoked mussels so much.
Smoked mussels are composed almost entirely of fat and protein, and generally packed in oil. No carbs to be found in that tin. Thus, they became my go-to, my new moment of indulgence. I used to buy the cheap, crappy tins of them by the dozen at Bartell's, where they always seemed to be on special. Certainly, forking bivalves into your mouth over the sink doesn't have the same feel as smashing a bag of Cheez-Its in front of the telly, but it still made me feel, at least for one precious moment, like a normal person. A person who snacks.
Though I'm much better at smashing Cheez-Its these days, I still seek out smoked mussels whenever I can, if only to remember fondly the sense of normalcy they gave me in those very abnormal times. And the smoked mussels at No Anchor, while about a thousand times better than the chalky, musky tinned ones I used to get at Bartell's, still take me right back.
While I sincerely hope you do not have the same attachment to smoked mussels that I do, did I mention that they're about a thousand times better than the chalky, musky tinned ones from the drugstore?
Jeff Vance's magnificent mollusks are pickled, for starters, which gives them a piquancy that their oil-drenched cousins simply cannot achieve. Vance has a gift for acid, as evidenced by his juniper oil and beer vinegar oysters on the half shell, and he uses it to full effect on the mussels. The smoking is a gentle touch here, making itself evident but avoiding a foray into full chalkiness, and a few small flecks of chili flake round out the experience, interspersing pleasant shivers of spice. The accompanying burnt garlic aioli, not aggressively burnt-tasting and superlatively smooth, provides the necessary fat to balance out all that bright acidity. To really sweeten the deal, the menu assures you that the whole affair is plated while listening to black metal, which I would unscientifically claim makes them extra delicious. At the very least, it is badass. In short, they are the acme of the smoked mussel experience, and a dish that should appeal to anyone, regardless of their pancreatic function.
Indeed, perhaps the most impressive thing about them is that they do. Anu and Chris Elford have created a bar that is endlessly appealing to Belltown's well-heeled techbros, which is no surprise, but Vance has created a menu of fairly weird food that said techbros simply cannot get enough of. That's new. As much as I enjoy sitting at the bar, sipping a sour beer and losing myself in a bowl of those mussels, I almost enjoy watching all the badge-wearing Barbies and Kens eat smoked trout more. It gives me, for a fleeting moment, hope that our city's flash makeover does not mean the death of taste. That our new elites didn't all come to work for Amazon only to spend their evenings holed up inside eating microwave pizzas. The fact that Vance has managed to coax down from their condos the type of people who spent college eating only food you unwrap, and to do it with smoked and pickled fish no less, is truly amazing. I would urge you to go and see for yourself how he did it.