Come midnight on December 31, your guests most likely will be enjoying: fireworks exploding while champagne corks are popping and mussels are being savored nearby.
But why champagne and mussels, and why on New Year’s Eve?
The custom of celebrating New Year’s Eve with spirits came to America with European immigrants. By 1800 it was common to remain awake until midnight, when church bells tolled and firearms fired.
In some cities, it became tradition to go from house to house, with the full expectation you’d be invited in for a drink.
Doing so spanned the social ladder: American residents from George Washington to FDR traditionally opened the doors of the White House to anyone dressed decently and with a letter of introduction, entertaining them with midnight punch and savory snacks.
Champagne was then just one of many drinks served, but it soon began its ascent to fame. Champagne, you see, is one of civilization’s greatest flaws evolving into a treasure. It started when French wine was bottled before being fully fermented; the yeast got busy and the wine got fizzy.
For years, the fizz was assumed to mask poor-quality wine, but after a century of fine-tuning, producers perfected the making of crisp, delicate champagnes. Royalty clamored for it, followed by nobility, followed by the rising merchant class that thought of itself as both royal and noble.
As the Industrial Revolution minted a new middle class, sales of sparkling wine soared from 6 million bottles in 1850 to 28 million by 1900. And what better occasion to pull out all stops and flaunt your aspirations than New Year’s Eve?
Champagne first rose to fame in America during the first decade of the 20th century at Café Martin’s in New York City. This classic French restaurant was among the first rank of what were then known as “lobster palaces,” an elite restaurant were the cream of society came to entertain themselves.
On New Year’s Eve, guests could order anything they wanted to drink, as long as they also ordered champagne. Martin’s list featured some 200 champagnes—although the distinction between French Champagne and other forms of bubblies had not yet been defined in the United States.
And what was a favorite dish at Martin’s with all that champagne and bubbly? Why mussels in cream and champagne of course.
Champagne Cream Mussels
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
- 1 cup chopped fresh fennel bulb
- 2 shallots, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 1-1/2 cups Champagne (or white wine)
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
- 3 pounds Taylor Mediterranean Mussels, debearded
- French Bread
- Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat.
- Add fennel, shallots, garlic and fennel seeds.
- Cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add Champagne and cream and boil about 10 minutes or until mixture becomes thick.
- Add mussels and cover.
- Cook about 5 minutes or until mussels open.
- Discard any unopened mussels.
- Serve with plenty of broth and, of course, French Bread.