Snails as escargots

“Not bad,” I said twenty-five years ago after choking down the chewy, gray nugget with a smile on my face.

“They are super, aren’t they?” my Dijonnais host father asked, full of enthusiasm, as he always was when exposing me to something particularly French.

“It is strange that escargots are a Burgundian specialty,” I observed, avoiding the question he had actually asked.

“Strange? Why strange?” he asked.

“Because we are so far from the sea,” I said.

“The sea?” he asked with that tell-tale mocking tone of his, “but what does the sea have to do with it?”

“The snails,” I said, speaking more slowly than usual, having a sense that I was digging my own grave, “are from the sea, no?”

The entire family looked at me, stunned, for a second or two before dissolving into Gallic laughter.

“No, no, cherie,” the father said, “snails, they are from the land!”

They then took turns incredulously wondering out loud how on earth I could have possibly thought escargots were shellfish. It seemed obvious to my Minnesota-raised self: they were in shells and they were fancy. Shellfish were rare and the harsh winters meant I had seen neither snail or slug in all my days of weeding my mom’s garden and pulling dandelions from the lawn. Too bad for the snails, too, since the rock garden my mom tended to one side of the house was a snail’s paradise, full low-growing leafy greens, stalks of tulips and iris, and plenty of dark, dank spaces between and under the rocks.

Since there are sea snails that get eaten (whelks!), I maintain that my seventeen-year-old ignorance was (and is) completely understandable. So imagine my utter delight when it came out – through a loud declaration on the street during our New Year’s trip to Paris while we were talking about finding a restaurant that served escargot to indulge our omnivorous son’s desire for same, that my dashing husband had the same impression. He managed to carry that impression with him for well over four decades. I understood, of course, and stopped myself from immediately pointing out that our garden had, at one time, been full of snails.

Yet the fact that our garden snails and escargots are, at heart, the same, came out on New Years Eve when our son finally got his escargots, and the table reveled in that funny fact. At our son’s insistence – since escargots are so very delicious, mind you – I then harvested, purged, and cooked snails from not our but our friend’s Bay Area garden. You can read all about it in my story “A Snail’s Tail” in Edible San Francisco. It includes detailed instructions on catching, purging, and cooking garden snails. I feel I must first warn you, however, that the whole endeavor is a messy process.

I started with this colander full of snails. They lived in a bucket in my study, kept in by a pair of old black tights stretched across the top which proved a great top since they could happily cling to it (they seem to really dig being upside down) and I could keep it, and thus the bucket, damp without any standing water lying around making things gross. Correction: grosser.

Every day I would take the snails out, put them in a big bowl on the kitchen counter, and, while they riled around in what can only be described as an orgyistic fashion, I cleaned out their shit- and slime-covered bucket. The snail excrement was really the least of it. It was the slime that made the process so disgusting. The poo rinsed right out, easy peasy. The slime, though, the slime clung to the bucket and required scrubbing.

The slime then stayed with them when they were parboiled in a pot of salt water for three minutes so when I pulled them from their shells I was pulling out gray snotty-looking chunks that stretched somewhat straight before springing back into their spiral shape. The slime then needed to be cooked off in a bath of vinegar-laced water before the snails could then be prepared to be eaten.

A quick run-down: first catch the snails, then feed them cornmeal for a few days, starve them for about a day (trust me, you want all that poo out), all this time you’re washing out whatever you’re keeping them in daily, then rinse the snails clean, boil then in salt water for three minutes, use tweezers to pull the snotty snails from their shells, boil the de-shelled snails in a mix of three or four parts water to one part vinegar until the slime cooks off (you’ll see the slime in the form of curdles little bits in the water), drain the snails and rinse them very very well. Only then can you cook them up with plenty of garlic-shallot-parsley butter. (Oh, did I mention that if you want to use the shells you’ll need to boil them in six cups water that has one-quarter cup of baking soda added to it, drain them, and let them dry.)

I don’t know, none of it really seemed worth it to me. And after all that slime, I found I wasn’t much in the mood for snails, even if I dubbed them escargots.

Worst of all, the whole process made my friend dream that I served her hamsters and rats I kept in cages and was “working on the smoking technique to make them less chewy.”

Truth be told, after taking care of the creepy crawlies all week, I had intermittent thoughts of vegetarianism as I prepared them. Even mucus-factories were, it became clear, in search of life and freedom. When they weren’t entwined in indiscriminate snail humping, they were up and out of that bowl, scurrying away as fast as they could (and faster than the phrase “a snail’s pace” would have you imagine).

My moment of sympathy would pass, however, as I scrubbed up the trail of slime they left behind them.