Throughout last spring and early summer I murdered a hundred, sometimes two hundred, every day. Some were smaller than a pea, others were as big as a walnut. I would pluck them off leaves until both my hands were full, pile them on a stone or board, stamp once, hard, with my right foot in its rubber clog, and give a sideways shove to land all the sticky, slimy mess in a garden bed, where before the day was done their live cousins would turn them back to soil.
My husband was appalled at the waste. We could eat them, he would quietly remind me. But I couldn’t get up an appetite for creatures that reminded me of carnage and gore. I couldn’t even look at the sole of my shoe. I knew only that unless I kept up with the killing we’d have no vegetables, no melons—nothing appetizing to eat at all.
My enemy is the European brown snail, Cornu aspersum, formerly known as Helix aspersa and Cryptomphalus aspersus. In the Mediterranean region, people have been eating these snails for ten thousand years. They came to the West Coast of this country soon after the Gold Rush, when a Frenchman introduced them to his San Jose vineyard “with an eye to the pot.” The snails were especially adaptable, and predators were lacking. By 1900 the snails had been found in Oakland and Pacific Grove (near Monterey), and they were common in Los Angeles.* Today they are so ubiquitous in California that they are sometimes called the California brown snail. Here in Oregon they are rare in the country but abundant in the cities. They are said to live happily in forests and deserts, so perhaps they slid all the way to the Willamette Valley on their own slime. But I suspect they came on nursery pots.
One rainy day Robert and I returned from a drive to find a whole convention of big ones at the edge of the driveway and all over the artichoke plants beside it. I hadn’t been snail hunting in the artichoke bed, because snails don’t eat artichoke buds; they just like hanging out in the shade of the plants. Left alone through a wet early summer, these mollusks had grown big—almost gros gris size, as the French say, as opposed to petit gris. Robert smiled as if he’d stumbled on a morel in the forest or a well-marbled steak in a supermarket. I told him I’d collect some if he wanted to prepare them. He did.
In five minutes I’d bagged 60. Robert put them in a bucket in the basement with some cornmeal and covered the bucket with half an old T-shirt, held tight with string. One time the snails got loose, through a little armpit hole, and I had to gather them up as they were escaping in all directions across the pool table that serves as our all-purpose worktable. But otherwise their last days were uneventful. Their poop turned from black to white. Each day for six days, Robert cleaned the bucket of poop and slime. Twice a day we misted the T-shirt with water.
Europeans, we read, often kill their snails by salting them; this is supposed to thoroughly purge them of slime. But even I couldn’t be so cruel.
So Robert followed a different method. He rinsed the snails in several changes of tepid water, and then boiled them for 15 minutes in 2 gallons of water. He lifted out the snails with a basket ladle and dropped them into a bowl of water with ½ cup vinegar. He rinsed them, drained them, rinsed them again in vinegar-water, and then drained them again. He picked out the meat with a small paring knife, poking the point into the center of the whorl and unwinding the body with a twist of the wrist. And then he rinsed the meats a final time in the vinegar-water.
The 60 snails were now reduced to a collection of pretty shells and 6.5 ounces of snail meat. In the classic escargot preparation, you stuff the snails back into their shells along with butter, parsley, garlic, and the like, cook the snails, and then pull the meats out again to eat them. Robert chose a simpler way. He melted ½ cup butter, and in it he sautéed a minced celery stalk, a sliced lion’s mane mushroom, and three large garlic cloves, minced. He added the snails, 1/3 cup pinot grigio, and 2 tablespoons minced sage (unconventional, but Robert loves sage). He simmered the sauce down a bit while boiling 8 ounces of linguine. Then he added a handful of chopped parsley to the sauce and poured the sauce over the hot, drained pasta.
Sixty snails are a lot for two people, especially when one of them is feeling a little queasy. I would suggest increasing the quantities of pasta and sauce ingredients, inviting another couple to dinner, and serving plenty of wine. But Robert enjoyed his leftover snails for lunch. They taste fine when you stop thinking of them as war victims.
I was so thorough in my slaughter in spring and early summer that now I’m killing only a dozen or two snails a day. But I have no doubt that when the rains start the snails will be back in force, if not from eggs in my garden then from the neighbors’ yards on both sides. When the creatures get really big again, I’ll ask Robert if he’s ready for another adventure with
*Robert E. C. Stearns, “Exotic Mollusca in California.” Science 11:278 (April 27, 1900), pp. 655-59.