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Coupeville really flexed its mussels

Filling the air with nautical tunes were the Shifty Sailors, who sang at Coupeville Rec Hall and at restaurants participating in the chowder-off. - Cynthia Woolbright
Filling the air with nautical tunes were the Shifty Sailors, who sang at Coupeville Rec Hall and at restaurants participating in the chowder-off.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

Coupeville and the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce hosted the 16th Annual Penn Cove Mussel Festival last weekend, and hundreds of lovers of mussels and fun were attracted.

On Saturday alone 450 ballots were purchased for the mussel chowder contest in which nine Coupeville area restaurants participated.

Mussel-themed activities for the young and the young at heart ran throughout the weekend. And people dusted off the secrets to their best mussel dishes for the recipe contest.

While the total number of festival attendees is hard to determine, because they filled every nook and cranny of the small town on the water, it can be said that they came exclusively for the mussels, and boy were they steamed.

On Front Street, the lines for the chowder tastings poured out of the competing restaurants and onto the sidewalk. Mussels were everywhere, on everyone’s minds and definitely in the air. As chowder tasters wandered, so did the aroma of competing recipes.

There there isn’t just one way to serve a mussel, as was clearly evident in Coupeville. Lunch and dinner times gave chefs the opportunity to show off their various recipes for steamed, tossed over pasta, or — well, if the possibilities were continued one would think they were listening to lines from a famous Tom Hanks movie.

George and Janet Enzmann love Coupeville, where they have lived for 11 years. They love mussels, too, so attending the festival was a must. The real selling point was the $3 price to try the nine different mussel chowders.

“Where else can you get a better cheap lunch?” Janet asked.

The final vote on their ballots put their taste buds to a test Saturday. Early on, the Enzmanns called a three-way tie between the Captain Whidbey Inn, Rosie’s, and Christopher’s. Janet gave the lead to the Captain Whidbey, calling their recipe “absolutely delicious.” George had a sweet spot for the server at Rosie’s who, like his daughter, was named Heidi.

The Penn Cove Mussel Festival has become an international event. Randy and Holly Lutes traveled south for festival weekend from Richmond, B.C. with their 5-year-old son Branden.

“He loves it, and we’re big mussel chowder fans,” Holly explained.

Not international enough? Christopher’s owner and chef, Austrian-bred Andreas Wurzrainer, notes, “I come from a landlocked country, so we didn’t have too many mussels.”

Jody Meldran and Graham Aitchison of Seattle, and others in the line of people at Christopher’s Front Street Cafe for a try at Wurzrainer’s lemon and cilantro based chowder, were glad he found his sea-legs on Whidbey.

The styles and flavors of mussel chowder were as widespread as the distances traveled by festival attendees.

Tortuga owner and chef Michael Lauver describes his chowder as “Manhattan South.” It is a tomato based, Caribbean style chowder made with coconut, lime, ginger and rum.

“I hope we’ve left a favorable impression of Coupeville and I hope to see people come back into the restaurants,” Lauver said.

A good first impression of Coupeville was made on many visitors. However, there was at least one complaint about the weekend: There wasn’t enough pre-festival hype.

Mill Creek resident Susie Nelson and a group of friends heard about the festival as they were heading toward the Port Townsend ferry. The sunny weather and beauty of Coupeville drew them in, but it was the festival itself that delayed the group’s departure.

“It’s nice, this is a little rest from everyday rushed life, and a great way to see the flavor of a small town,” Nelson said.

Coupeville resident Dorothy Horr agreed that the festival is just an introduction to Coupeville, and it won’t be the last Penn Cove and the festival-goers will see of each other.

“Participants in the chowder tasting get an opportunity to go to all the restaurants, see inside of them, try the food, and get an idea if they’ll go back,” Horr said.

As Coupeville discovers every year, if you steam mussels, toss them into chowder, over salad, over pasta, or even just smoke them ... people will come.

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