Lately, I’ve had some experiences with escargot. Some vivid experiences. I’ve had to wait awhile from my last one to write about it.
The first escargot encounter was in Paris, at this place called Robert et Louise, maybe the best dinner in Paris. The stone walls, yellow light, buzz of conversations, that daring that comes upon me at good restaurants: yes, I’ll try some. Delicious, like mussels, only not from the sea. Dripping with green, garlicky butter, six in their neat gray shells. They came with a tool a little like an eyelash curler, with which you gripped their shells, and tiny forks to pluck out the meat. (You know snails were a siege food, said my friend Palash, and now the French have given them their own fancy implements….)
And, a surprise, they weren’t slimy at all, but that rubbery-chewy-savory texture that shellfish have. I loved them.
So, when I found a few snails in my overwintered cabbages, I thought, why not see if I can make escargot at home? I put the little guys in a tupperware with some damp lettuce and chard leaves, and took them home. Then I consulted the experts. None of the cookbooks I looked in — Julia Childs, the Cook’s Illustrated guy, Joy of Cooking, Mark Bittman, Sally Fallon, or that treasure of a book, The Forgotten Skills of Cooking — explained how to cook fresh snails, though many gave recipes using canned snails, or details on making the herb butter to accompany snails. So I turned to the internet.
I stood at the entrance of that oracle’s cave and shouted in my question: How do you cook snails? Out from the depths came bizzare, conflicting instructions. Put them in salt. Don’t put them in salt. Remove some-part-I-didn’t-know-what-it-was, don’t remove that part-whatever-it-is. But every answer was breezy and encouraging. I went with the lowest common denominator.
Three days after catching my snails, a sunny Monday when I was home alone, I decided to cook them up. The first crazy thing about eating snails, is that before I could eat them, I had to make them into pets. I had to keep them captive, and care for them, and clean up their poop, and catch them when they escape into my mother’s sewing basket. I had to worry that they would get too hot, or too dry, or too sad in their confinement. I had to remember how happy they were, out there in the shady cabbage. This went on for days.
By the time the fateful lunch came, I really liked the little creatures. I’m sorry, I told them. I promise I will eat you. And I promise I will eat a lot of lettuce, just like you like to eat. They waved their eye tentacles at me and said nothing.
I figured that the best thing to do was to make a good meal out of it, so while the water boiled, I made a grilled cheese sandwich with shallot butter on part of an Essential Bakery baguette, and fried up some chard from my garden, also in the shallot butter. I dug up an unmarked home-brewed beer I had traded some pickles for a while back. Then I pried the four snails off of their container and dropped them into the boiling water, just like that. The water immediately turned yellow. I waited the oracularly prescribed three minutes, and poured the water off. A foam ringed the pot. I rinsed the snails, pulled them out of their shells, and put them into a pan with some more shallot butter.
What I did not know about snails until then is how complex their bodies are, and how beautiful, if sluggy. They have a part — was it the part-I-didn’t-know? — shaped like a tiny spiral, as if it spiraled all the way into the central whorl of the shell. I left that piece on. Struggling a little to think of them as food, I put them in their own ramekin, and carried my lunch out into the sunshine.
The first two were pretty good, though I still felt much more squeamish than I had in France. The third one, however, was oozing a clear slime, as if it were ovulating. That sounds graphic. It was graphic. I took a swig of my beer. I’d promised them I would eat them. I ate it. Almost immediately, I retched it back up in the grass. Oh god, the slime in my throat, my mouth. I drank some more beer. There was one more snail. It was slimy too. I gave it to Squinchy’s brother Jack. He licked it up with all the butter. I finished my lunch, while Squinchy hauled the ramekin off to the blueberry bushes and licked it clean.
But the slimy sensation didn’t go away, and on top of that, everything tasted like shallot butter, which tasted like snails. And the beer was weird, a little yeasty. Pretty soon, well, as my students would say, I hominid it all back up. And I mean all of it. For hours afterwards, I felt green. When everyone got home, I couldn’t even talk about it. I had to wait for a week to write it down.
According to my aunt’s internet research, snail slime is toxic, though I have yet to get a solid answer on this from the oracle. It did tell me about these Toxic Snails. And about some toxic snails in China. So I don’t know. I do know I had a toxic reaction to something, psychological or otherwise.
So it seems like there is an art to this snail-eating. I would like to try them again — when done right they are really good — but I think I’ll leave to cooking to the pros and the French until I know how to do it right, unless perhaps there is a siege.