Leon’s Got Mussels

by Natasha Ball


Kathy Todoroff took the phone from her husband. She remembers asking into the receiver: “What would you like to eat, Leon?”

Kathy loved to cook. She’d been doing it every day since she was 13, when her mother became too sick for kitchen duty. She was brought up to think that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach—“It was very important to know how to cook, and for the ones you love to enjoy your cooking,” she remembered.

But as she listened to the familiar voice on the other end of the line—the voice that had been part of her life since she started dating her husband, Steve, the self-appointed Leon Russell archivist who’d had the idea for this birthday bash concert for which she hadn’t thought twice about cooking a feast—her mind reeled. She grew up to be a dental assistant, a cheerleading coach, a wife, a mother. It was spring, 1986, and she was talking to Leon Russell on her home phone in south Tulsa. His request was ringing in her ears. She did a mental search of a recipe for a dish that she’d never made, nor even considered eating. But he knew exactly what he wanted: Steamed mussels. A dish for which the Tulsa-raised Lawton native had acquired a taste during his time in California, she guessed. “Whatever he would have chosen, I would have figured out a way to do it,” Kathy said.

Kathy’s not much for seafood—even now, she rarely cooks what swims. She got her recipe from a chef at Bodean’s and returned the next morning for her mussels, as many of the palm-print-shaped bivalves as she thought a man could eat. It was almost more than Kathy could handle, standing at her kitchen sink, using her fingertips to rip the beards from the live animals concealed inside the smooth, black shells—“That was one of the grossest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Kathy said. She popped them into a steaming broth of butter and herbs, and they sighed and opened under the lid of her big stockpot.

Kathy enlisted her mother to help her cook Leon his dinner and feed his crew before the show (except for Leon—he never eats until after he performs). The duo conspired on a slew of dishes, created Thanksgiving-style, Kathy and her mother doing most of the preparation the day before the concert and rising early to finish the cooking. The trip to deliver the mussels to the bus in the parking lot at Brady Theater was the last of the many Kathy had taken that day, sustaining the crew on a steady rotation of chicken, potatoes, Texas lasagna, Bixby corn, and broccoli casserole, served up in Crock Pots.

When Steve and Kathy moved to Texas, they opted to hire a caterer for Leon’s birthday bashes, putting in orders for barbeque at Wilson’s and the now-defunct Pampered Pig (Leon loves barbecue, Kathy said). The desserts were the exception—she even flew from Dallas to Tulsa with a homemade chocolate tunnel cake on her lap once. Her mother made Leon banana pudding, cooked the old-fashioned way on the stove, none of that instant stuff. She’d slice the bananas paper thin, which she’d tell her daughter was the secret to the whole thing. On top was a cloud of hand-whipped cream, already six inches deep before that crowning moment.

She couldn’t bring herself to wrestle a mussel for even one taste before she schlepped the dish across town in her Chrysler minivan. She wanted to serve Leon herself, “to make sure everything was fine, that it tasted like it should.” She boarded the bus and made her way to where Leon was waiting, making sure not to spill the broth that shimmered like the walls of those shells. In the darkness, she tripped. The liquid sloshed onto Leon’s shirt and into his lap.

He was startled at first, Kathy said, “but he kept telling me, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ ” He ate them all up, her husband likes to report— “we almost had to hose him down afterwards.” She never made steamed mussels again.