This journey is not all cakes and cookies. Every once and a while, a celebration comes around that makes me dig deep and pulls me out of my comfort zone. Today was one of those days when after a long day, I had to reward myself with a nice plate of snails. Yep, those little creatures that sludge across the ground in their safe little shells. That was dinner tonight. This wasn’t going to be pleasant.
When discussing snails (or escargot as they are known in the culinary world), they are usually classified as a delicacy which is really doublespeak to let us know that you are about to eat something particularly gross. As food, snails have been around since the ancient Roman times and they even appear in the cookbook of Apicius who is credited with creating the oldest surviving cookbook in the year 1 B.C. In modern times, it has been the French who have propelled the enjoyment of escargot and who consume nearly 40,000 tons of snails per year. That’s dedication. In truth, snails are an easily accessible protein and are relatively easy to farm (the science of growing snails as food is called Heliculture), so they do have value as a food source throughout the world. But what made them popular? I have no idea. And what keeps them popular in a world in which you can order a burger through a loud speaker and have it delivered hot and in your car within minutes? Still I have no clue.
My first run-in with escargot was going out to dinner as a young boy with my family to celebrate a milestone in the life of one of our family friends, Fr. Harlow. Growing up with two uncles that were priests meant that I would meet all kinds of priests at family occasions. Fr. Harlow was a very close friend of my uncle Bernard and the two had worked together at various churches throughout the years. I don’t remember exactly what the occasion was we were celebrating – probably an anniversary of his being a priest, but as part of the happy occasion, Fr. Harlow took us all out to eat at a fancy restaurant. I don’t remember where the restaurant was other than it was located some place in Connecticut which as a kid, seemed a million miles away. (I want to say it was the Griswald Inn, although I could easily be making that up.) It was your typical swanky restaurant of that time, with dark lighting, fancy tablecloths and dark wood and leather as the overriding decorative theme. I know my Mom made a big deal that we were going there. Fr. Harlow was seated across the table from me and I noticed he had ordered something called escargot as an appetizer for himself. I had never heard of such a thing. I watched as the server brought the dish out and much to his delight, Fr. Harlow had a plate piled with neat looking spiral shells in front of him. I looked on in astonishment. He was going to eat that? First I thought he was going to eat it all and I waited to hear the crunch of the shell in his mouth, but then I watched. He picked up a tiny fork which he fished inside one of the shells and after some tinkering, out came a clump of meat that had been cooked deep inside this spiraled shell casing. He offered me a taste and I refused. Then he ate it up. He seemed pretty happy about it too. I think my Mom was grossed out as well as she is not known for her adventurous culinary side. My Dad may have tried it – I don’t recall for sure – but he was always open to trying something new.
Today was National Escargot Day and I was not looking forward to it. I looked around for anything else I could celebrate. It was National Brother Day so I tried to see if I could get my brother out for some fun, but his schedule didn’t have much flexibility. That was out of the question. Nope, it seemed like I was heading for a date with escargot. I suppose making yourself try something you have never tasted before is more appropriate for this quest – to push myself out of my comfort zone. It seemed kind of festive too. So despite my hesitance, I eventually realized escargot was the way to go. Now where to get some? I searched online for restaurants that served escargot in Newport and I found a few. As it happens, I was also going to be in downtown Newport in the latter half of the afternoon, so there was hope this would all work out. The two restaurants I found that had escargot on their menu were located on lower Thames Street which isn’t the most convenient spot to drive to (especially since I was already south of that area near Fort Adams.) To access the street, I would have to backtrack and go to the start of Thames Street which is a one way street. And, if I were to reroute myself, I would still have to deal with parking which is rare to find and expensive. The reasons not to stop were piling up and after being tired and not wanting to deal with pedestrian traffic, I decided to skip it all together. I would leave Newport as I have always left it – snail-less.
I had one hope and it’s the same hope that I always have on this quest: Clement’s. It seems odd that our local supermarket would carry escargot but there was some morsel of memory in my head that made me think I had seen it there before. Was it in the pre-made food section? The seafood section? When you see a package of snails for sale in a store, it kind of stands out in your mind. It was my last hope and worth a try. So after the 30 minutes it takes to get from one end of the Aquidneck island to the north end, I stopped. I walked right to the freezer in the seafood section and lo and behold, a package of escargot was waiting for me. They were already prepared with some kind of green sauce stuffed inside each shell (and a good thing too because I am not sure what the preparing snails requires) and the instructions for cooking them were right on the package (10 minutes in a 400 degree oven). They were relatively cheap too – just $4.99 for six. I know that’s not exactly ramen prices, but I expected them to be more expensive as their French origins would make you believe. When I got home, I put them in the freezer and told Lola I put a special treat in there. Then I immediately told her that they were snails because I didn’t want her thinking there was special ice cream in the fridge only to discover a tub of escargot.
I actually made them while we were watching the Survivor finale. I thought that this might even be a fun way to eat them as freshly cooked snails would be a treat for anyone trapped on an island without food. It would be like playing the home game alongside. The directions seemed to be spot on and when I pulled them out of the oven after ten minutes, the green sauce was bubbling and the shells were nice and hot. I plopped them on to a plate with a wedge of fresh lemon and sat down to a nice serving of French boogers in the shell (it’s a delicacy).
I squeezed some lemon over all the shells and took a deep breath. I had a little fork as my implement of choice and then I just dug in. The fork went deep into the shell, farther than I thought I would have to go, and it was actually not easy to plop out the meat. It was adhered to the shell and at an angle that was hard to reach (there must be a specific long fork for this kind of thing that I am sure Becky has a matching set of that she keeps next to her cracker tray). We almost had a Julia Roberts moment with the shell flying across the room, but I managed to hold onto to everything. After some prying, out popped the booger I was looking for. I have eaten clams and mussels before and while your treasure inside those shells are odd looking, they are usually not that big. The meat from the snails was big and thick and meaty. It was everything I didn’t want. I swished it around my plate in the green sauce to soak up all I can, and then I eased it in my mouth. It actually wasn’t too bad. The sauce was nice and tasty – a mixture of garlic, butter and some kind of herb. I tasted mint, but the standard recipe seems to call for parsley, so maybe that was the taste. But it was refreshing and good in that hearty sauce kind of way. It covered up the taste of the snail meat which really wasn’t all that ba…..WAIT! Oh gross. Yuck. When I got my first bite into the heart of the snail I got all that snail flavor at once which just wasn’t my thing. It was earthy and slimy and seafood-y all at once. I felt like I just licked a slug. I swallowed it but by now my nose was crimped and my mouth was locked in that grossed-out pose. I felt like my palate was violated. Lola laughed. I tried another one, because you kind of have to and it was more of the same, but it built upon the yuck-taste that was already in my mouth, so my displeasure was growing fast. That was all I could stand. No, escargot was not for me.
Today I learned officially that I do not like escargot. That may seem like a pretty sad way to celebrate National Escargot Day, but I did try them. I went on a search for them, I cooked them and I gave it the ol’ college try. I liked the sauce but I just didn’t care for the snail part. I discovered that today and I think that process of discovery is all part of this quest. Did any readers have escargot today? You would have had to make an effort to try them and that’s what I did. I will say that if I was ever at a dinner table and someone offered me a taste of their escargot, I might try them again. Maybe I cooked them wrong or was missing an important part of the eating ritual. Maybe they used a better sauce or had a different way to prepare them all together. If the French eat 40,000 tons of these bad boys, then I can keep trying them to see what the big deal is all about. Maybe I’ll spit them out again, but at least I can say I tried. That’s what this quest is all about – working outside the norm of my every day. So today was a victory, albeit one that tasted like piquant elephant snot.
Next up: National Wine Day
[Snail facts form Mobile-Cuisne.com]