What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a snail?
Probably not, and if you interaction with snails is limited to trying to spotting them crawling across rain-dampened sidewalks or munching through your vegetable garden, it’s easy to see why. Between the hard shell and oddly placed tentacle eyes, snails are almost other-worldly in appearance, vastly different than the birds and mammals that make up the majority of our meals.
And, of course, there’s the slime.
Despite all of this, someone, somewhere took the bold step of actually cooking up and eating one of these little garden monsters, launching humanities several thousand years of snail-eating history.
The ancient Romans were crazy about snails so much so that simply foraging was not long good enough to satiate society’s appetite for that sweet, livery snail meat. Eventually they set up the practice of “heliciculture,” or farming snails as a food source, and the resulting Burgundy or Roman snail is now the standard species used in escargot.
The other snail popular in culinary uses is the garden snail (Cornu aspersum), the same little buggers that are probably out back in your garden chomping their way through your cucumbers.
The French call them petit gris, or little grays, a nod to the fact that they’re slightly smaller, yet no less delicious, than their Burgundy peers.
It was, in fact, their delicious nature that got snails to the United States in the first place, with French immigrants bringing them to California in the 1850s as a source of fresh escargot.
Sadly, the west coast escargot boom never came, and instead, the country was saddled with a pest that does hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to economic operations around the country. Armed with a voracious appetite, garden snails have been know to chomp through citrus orchards, field crops and just about anything else they can get their mouthparts on.
While they’ve been a pain for farmers and gardeners, snails have been a boon to the pesticide manufacturers, with entire sections of home and garden stores dedicated to snail baits, snail sprays and just about every other imaginable way to sprinkle harmful toxins on top of tomorrow night’s salad.
If you ask me, garlic butter and white wine make a much better weapon.
That being said, there are ways to eat snails other than the venerable escargots de bourgogne, so don’t feel like you have to be bound by butter and garlic.