My Citizens, every now and again, a recipe that deserves to be beloved by gastronomes worldwide has sadly fallen prey to the twin grim Titans of passing time and perceived dislikes. I – the Chosen One, YOUR TFD – shall swoop down from the Celestial Empyrean upon wings of truth to enlighten you regarding this recipe for Billi Bi from the late 19th or early 20th century that was once described by the mighty Craig Claiborne as “one of the sublime creations on Earth”.
Strong words indeed for a mussel soup – but totally justified in this case! Even people who claim to dislike mussels will love the oceanic flavor of this soup, redolent with cream, egg yolks and flavored with a range of herbs and spices. Having recently posted a recipe for Prince Edward Island Seafood Chowder, I decided to resurrect this recipe that may have been its distant ancestor!
As noted in this excerpted text from the New York Times:
We are celebrating with a recipe for billi bi, “a consummately good cream of mussels soup,” in the words of Craig Claiborne, once the food editor of The New York Times. Claiborne published recipes for the dish in the newspaper from the 1960s onward. In the first edition of “The New York Times Cookbook,” published in 1961, he said billi bi “may well by the most elegant and delicious soup ever created.”
The origins of the soup’s name are another matter. Billi bi almost certainly has its roots in the kitchen of Maxim’s, the landmark restaurant in Paris, where an exemplary cream of mussels soup was served in the early part of the 20th century. Legend has it that one of the restaurant’s patrons, an American businessman named William B. Leeds Sr., so loved the dish that it took on his nickname in tribute.
Though the Billy B. in reference may just as easily have been his son: William B. Leeds Jr. lived in Paris in the early 1920s and was said to have been, like his father, an aficionado of Maxim’s and its soup.
Brands, Beebes and other wealthy men with the given name William have been cited in the soup’s origin myth as well. Pronounce it Billy-BEE, then, with a clipped American bark. A soup for the ages, brought back from the ice.
For the record, William Bateman Leeds (September 19, 1861 – June 23, 1908) was an American businessman who dominated the tin plate industry, becoming known as the “Tin Plate King”. He was a fascinating man, involved in many businesses with a fascinating life story.
Leeds founded the American Tin Plate Co. in 1898, with his partners Daniel G. Reid, William H. Moore and James H. Moore. The company grew to consist of over 200 companies, and gained control of as much as 90% of the tinplate industry.
The company expanded to comprise over 28 mills in Elwood and President William McKinley passed a tin tariff, in part to protect their business.They organized the National Steel Corporation in 1899 to provide steel to the tin company, with about $50 million in stock. The company sold for as much as $40 million to U.S. Steel.
Leeds was also involved in founding the National Steel Corporation, American Sheet Steel Company and the American Steel Hoop Company He became president of Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad in 1902. Leeds was heavily involved with National Biscuit Company, Diamond Match Company, Tobacco Products Corporation and American Can Company.
Additionally, he was the director of the Audit Co. of New York, Elwood, St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railway, Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad, United States Mortgage and Trust Co., Anderson and Lapelle Railroad Company, Nassau Gas, Heat and Power Co., Nassau Light and Power Co., and the Windsor Trust Co.
The SS William B. Leeds was named after him and Leeds was an avid yachtsman, and had membership in the New York, the Seawanhaka Corinthian, Brooklyn, Larchmont, and American Yacht Clubs. He maintained membership in the Meadow Brook club, Automobile Club of America, and The Brook club. The ‘Billy Bi’ soup was named after him, as previously noted and Leeds was also an avid horseman.
Leeds also achieved some level of infamy when purchased a pearl necklace for his wife that cost $360,000 when he bought it – but he only paid the ten percent tariff on pearls, rather than the sixty percent tariff on a pearl necklace. The United States filed suit, and for several years, as the case was litigated, the “Leeds pearls were the most famous jewels in America.”
Now as to recipe – mussels, while delicious, demand a careful eye when buying. I recommend buying cultured Prince Edward Island mussels, as they should already be ‘de-bearded’ and are clean of grit. As noted on monahansseafood.com:
Rope cultured mussels from Prince Edward Island are hung above the sea floor and are sand and grit free.
Buying mussels can be a bit tricky. Most markets and restaurants do not do a good job in handling mussels—thus, giving rise to Anthony Bourdain pronouncements such as, “never order mussels on a Sunday.” This is because handlers don’t pay close attention to the “harvest dates” on every shipment, they don’t store the mussels properly (buried in ice but not touching water), or keep a super close eye on mortality.
All mussels should be purchased and cooked live. They should all be closed tight, not be cracked or broken and feel heavy for their size. Mussels naturally “gape” and when open they are vulnerable to dehydration, causing them to weaken and die. That’s why mussels are hard to handle. It takes a lot of time and effort for a restaurant or a merchant to be constantly culling through them to remove the ones that have expired.
Your fish monger should be going through them very carefully at the time of your purchase. If the salesperson is just tossing them into a bag or if you see those pre-portioned bags at the store, you’re probably going to find dead mussels at home.
Citizens, my version of Billi Bi (thought to have originated in the maritime province of Brittany in France) hews closely to the original, but with 3 exceptions. First, I have added in some root vegetables that are puréed into the soup to further thicken and flavor it. You can omit them if you so prefer, but I think the soup is even better with them in it.
I also add a heresy of spicing – the original uses a bit of cayenne pepper, but I have further added an eccentric (but delicious!) touch of the Yemenite spice blend known as Hawaij. It is again, totally optional but I love it in the recipe – you can buy it here. I also added in a bit of Spanish Espelette pepper – grab it here. Lastly, the original recipe calls for minced parsley for garnish, but I prefer minced chives.
This will be a revelation for you, my Citizens!
Battle on – the Generalissimo