Last April, after a night of heavy rain, I walked outside to weed my backyard. As I ripped fistfuls of sour grass from the low retaining wall that runs alongside my house, hordes of fat snails appeared. Their mucus-laden feet suctioned to the wall or clung to the moist earth. A few spewed slick foam when I plucked them from the dirt and placed them in a pile on the driveway.
In the months since my wife and I had bought our first house, I'd developed an interest in gardening -- and with it the pestiferous snail. I was shocked by the voraciousness of these garden villains. Eager to rid my yard of their slimy presence, I'd taken some murderous advice from a neighbor, alternately tossing the bastards over my backyard fence to the concrete below or bludgeoning them with blunt objects. My wife protested. I reveled. I'd capture and starve the slippery slime buckets. I killed them for sport.
But then a strange thing happened. My wife became pregnant with twins, our first children. All of a sudden I developed an inexplicable desire to nurture everything that crossed my path -- and slowly my opinion of the snot bags started to change. That ebbing bloodlust, coupled with a frontiersman-like desire to eat as much as I could from my own backyard, led to an epiphany that afternoon among the weeds. Maybe I could have it both ways: harvest snails, feed snails, eat snails.
And so, for the remainder of the afternoon I hunted. Quickly, my pile stretched from five or six to a score. I searched shrubs and bushes. I ducked under the wisteria and plunged into the lavender. I scooped up snails, four dozen in all, and dropped them into a wide-mouthed glass vase. What had been a chore became a mission.
The common garden snail, alias European brown snail, aka Helix aspersa Müller, is a backyard bandit in California and assorted other spots in the United States. An invasive species that causes millions of dollars in damage each year to citrus trees and other crops and confounds gardeners, even U.S. customs has the garden snail on its watch list.
Still, these nocturnal gastropods have been delicacies in various cultures for millennia. Roasted snail shell remains have been found in archaeological sites dating back to prehistoric times, and the ancient Romans bred them. Although written records show it was first spotted in Santa Barbara, Calif., Internet legend has it that the European brown snail was introduced to the Golden State during the gold rush by a Frenchman who thought he could strike it rich selling what some Brits call "wall fish" to the burgeoning population of San Francisco. He was wrong. But somehow his crop escaped -- and now the midnight marauders munch away at millions of garden veggies, taunting gardeners with their slick trails.
Common though they might be, Helix aspersa is also one of two species -- the other being Helix pomatia -- often used to make that refined French delicacy known as escargot. But heliciculture, as the raising of snails is formally known, hasn't really caught on in America. Last year, according to the United Nations Statistics Division, the U.S. exported 19,492 kilograms (42,973 pounds) of snails worth $230,934. Fresh beef exports, meanwhile, totaled 284.9 million kilograms (628 million pounds) valued at $1.1 billion. Imports of snails aren't so impressive either, with 185,379 kilograms (408,691 pounds) brought in, at the tune of $839,386. And National Escargot Day -- May 24 -- doesn't exactly cause government offices to shut down.
In the late 1980s one or two large U.S. snail farming operations existed, but no longer appear to operate today, according to Becky Thompson, a librarian at the USDA's National Agricultural Library. A USDA report on raising snails generates a handful of e-mails a month from people interested in snail farming, she told me. "We need to take down the publication," she joked, adding that even after writing and editing the report she had no desire to try escargot. "There are not a lot of snail farmers in the U.S. It's not a big business."
I'd never before stopped to consider that the silver streaks dotting the red stairs to my house might lead to a homegrown business, like a treasure map leading to a pot of gold. But after that April epiphany, I found myself drawn back outside to hunt. At night, collecting snails was like shooting wall fish in a barrel. I listened for their quiet munching sounds and picked them off three at a time, dropping them into my newly designated "snail jail": a glass vase I covered in cling wrap with holes poked in the top.
As the prison population swelled to 100, my wife pleaded with me to stop. She would have started a neighborhood chapter of PETA, and launched an SOS -- Save Our Snails -- campaign replete with T-shirt, demonstrations and midnight jailbreaks if she didn't think it dignified my endeavor. When my father-in-law came to visit, he cracked jokes, calling me Slimy when we played cards. Even my own dad, a third-generation meat purveyor himself, asked my wife what the hunt was all about. "Everybody agrees it's strange," she confessed to me. And maybe it was a bit bizarre. But though I knew I'd expend far more energy collecting, cleaning and feeding my brood than I'd take in from an occasional plate of escargot, I found pleasure in striving toward self-sufficiency, even if only at a snail's pace.
Soon our backyard snail hideouts were shut down by my diligent patrol, and due to an increasing number of inmates, I needed to upgrade my detention facilities. I transferred my snails from their vase to a large white bucket, which I covered with a wire screen. Then the bucket gave way to three cellblocks -- plastic containers, dirt, and water dishes I bought for $60 -- with the captives separated by size and date of capture. I felt like the warden on death row at snail San Quentin. But at least my inmates ate well: I fed them garden clippings, bought them head after head of iceberg lettuce, sprinkled in corn meal and scooped it out when it turned rancid. Instead of tossing eggshells into my compost bin, I crunched them up and sprinkled them in the snail cages so they'd have calcium to strengthen their growing shells.
Then over Memorial Day weekend I found the mother lode. When I pulled more than 100 snails off an agapanthus plant that was ready to bloom (pushing my count to 350), it felt like a nasty, mucus-infused dream come true. Adding to my satisfaction was the promise of a self-sustaining flock. Two sets of couples -- 63 and 64, 97 and 98 -- were in the act of Helicidae love, a hermaphroditic hump where one snail sends out its "love dart," an aptly named procreative tool to impregnate its partner. It was a moment to celebrate. I couldn't yet call my makeshift operation a snail farm, but witnessing snail sex in captivity raised the possibility. Never mind the birds and the bees. For my kids, it'll be snails and, well, snails.
But then I lost my nerve.
I suppose a farmer can't help but feel some attachment to his flock. But as the weeks wore on and harvest time neared, I began to reminisce about everything we'd gone through. The snails had survived a week alone when my wife and I went on vacation. We'd weathered a brief spell of mass suicide in the form of drowning and the anxieties of a few escapes -- and one horrific death, the evidence of which was still smudged across the concrete patio floor.
And so for weeks I put off the final preparations needed to transform snails into escargot. I walked by their cellblocks, but couldn't look at them. All along I'd talked a big game about nurturing my snails. But my wife had been right. I was cultivating them. And that meant I had to kill and eat them.
Determined to see my mission through, I decided to hold the last supper on 7/07/07, hoping it would prove a lucky day. The week before, I'd bought a wood wine box at a flea market. At home I selected 35 snails, one for each year of my life plus another for good luck, and rinsed the shit off their shells. I'd chosen what one online recipe called the "traditional" approach to preparing the escargot, which meant five to six days drying out in the box, followed by salting, which causes them to disgorge their intestines in a frothy glaze of gory. My wife screamed when I described what was going to happen to them.
On the Fourth of July, I walked to the local health store and asked for rock salt. I was led to the bulk section. "Are you making ice cream?" the employee asked. "No," I replied, waiting a beat before I added, "escargot." He pointed to the salt and quickly walked away.
When the fateful day dawned, I dallied for most of the morning, avoiding the task that lay ahead. Finally, around 3 p.m., I went to work. The house's executive chef (my wife) had banished me from the kitchen for the preparatory stage, so I pulled out our double-burner propane-fueled Coleman camping stove, and set it up on the patio table. After gently washing their shells, I placed the snails in the plastic bucket where, after a week of estivation in an arid box, they came back to life.
I transferred them to a camping pot, scooped out a handful of rock salt, and let it rain down. Instantly, snot bubbles oozed out from under the snails' shells like suds rising in a washbasin. I tossed in a few more snails and added more salt. The result was a foaming slick of mucus that fizzed upward. When I added water, the snot morphed into a funky simple syrup.
Back upstairs, I laid out my ingredients for the court bouillon recipe I'd chosen as an accompaniment: a dill sprig, three or four stems of thyme, a half cup of white wine, a cup of water, three garlic cloves, a quarter of a shallot, half of an old onion, a fistful of freshly clipped Italian parsley from the herb garden, and salt and pepper. Next to these I set three large button mushrooms, into which I planned to stuff the concoction. I poured off the ooze and gave the snails a final rinse, careful to blast off any stringy boogers, and set the water to boil. Then at 7 p.m., on July 7, 2007, I dropped 35 snails into a boiling pot of water.
An earthy odor segued to a fishy scent, and the water turned an eerie green. When three minutes were up, I drained the murky mixture and removed the snails from their shells with a long metal skewer. The first few refused to surrender their soft, vulnerable masses to my gentle prodding, but I patiently coaxed the others out. Of the 35, I successfully extricated 27, mangled two and discarded another six. I plopped the snails in the bouillon, and set the flame to simmer for the next 90 minutes.
By then it had become abundantly clear that, given the preparation required, cooking escargot was not going to become a weeknight habit. But exhausted though I was, I hadn't lost my appetite. The sun went down. I toasted breadcrumbs, chopped a quarter cup of Italian parsley from my garden, scrambled an egg, and diced up the 27 snails. Yawning but undaunted, I stuffed the mixture inside two mushrooms and baked them in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes.
Finally, the moment of truth arrived. I hefted a forkful toward my mouth and whispered a silent prayer to the slime buckets. Then I swallowed. It was so soft and savory, I could hardly determine where the mushrooms ended and the escargot began.
Now, as I write, the remaining snails sit in their plastic cells, devouring another head of lettuce and patiently awaiting their fate. My wife wants to know when it will end. I'm wondering what's on the menu next: snail kebabs? snail pizza? snail porridge? This isn't merely a quirky backyard lark, I tell her. It's the beginning of an ingenious pest control agri-empire. Today, the wisteria. Tomorrow, the world.