Snail shells are one of many examples of the Golden Spiral in nature. One way to approximate the Golden Spiral is with a mathematical series called the Fibonacci series. The ratio between consecutive Fibonacci numbers approaches the golden ratio as the Fibonacci numbers approach infinity. As it turns out, there are many strange examples of the golden ratio in nature, snails being one example that is edible.
It baffles me that the French are called “frog eaters” shortened to “frogs” but not “snail eaters” or just “snails.” From what I’ve read, the eating of frogs dates at least as far back in history and may be more widespread than the eating of snails. Furthermore, according to one source, the French love snails so much they’ve nearly “hunted them into extinction.” Perhaps it’s the influence of the Catholic Church. Apparently the French monks developed an affinity for frogs during the 12th century when the ecclesiastic authorities told them to eat less meat. Frogs were considered fish and were therefore exempt from the ban.
When I first arrived at the Sea Gull, I had never eaten snails. The very idea disgusted me. I associated them with the slimy mess that trails along behind them. Just the thought of eating a snail upset my stomach. That was soon to change.
Fall in Mendocino is a lovely time of year. Sometimes during the summer a wet, drippy fog can hang around for days on end, a mold-inducing, depressive fog that only Edgar Allen Poe would find inspiring. It was during the early fall just as the weather changed that a family from France arrived to rent the two-room suite at the Sea Gull Inn we called the Lookout because of its ocean view. The Lookout was a favorite of the Switzer family, descendants of George Switzer, the owner of the house in the nineteenth century long before it was converted to an Inn.
The French family was delighted with the sunny weather. Not long after they checked in, I noticed the married couple walking in the garden behind the restaurant with their two young children. The grandfather was sitting on the deck outside the room enjoying the view. The husband and wife started speaking in animated French and the husband dropped to his knees and took something out of one of the raised flower beds. The wife looked up with an embarrassed smile when she saw that I was watching.
“Monsieur, may I ask, do you use any pesticides or poisons in the flower garden?”
She was very pretty. I was charmed and disarmed of my defenses. Her two children ran to and fro throughout the garden, but they were careful and well behaved. Her husband, still on his knees, kept picking up small things I could not see and storing them in his hat.
“No. We sometimes use the flowers as decorations on our plates in the restaurant. If we used pesticides we would not be able to do that.”
I walked closer and saw the husband’s hat was full of snails.
“Très bon, monsieur. The snails then will be safe for us. Do you mind if we pick the snails out of your garden? It will be better for the flowers and the snails will make une bonne repas.”
“You mean, you want to eat them?”
“Oh yes,” she laughed as she saw the look of disgust on my face. “The escargot are quite delicious. You have not tried them?”
“Certainly not! Take all you want.” I made a quick retreat as my stomach churned and cramped. As I turned to leave, the husband stood and addressed me.
“You must join us in three days. It will take us that long to cleanse the snails. We feed them cornmeal and water to clean out the impurities. You have a bonanza of snails in this garden, my friend. Large, beautiful snails. We have a delicious family recipe that you must try. Drop by our room on Thursday night. Let’s say 5 o’clock. We will be most pleased to serve you your first taste of escargot.”
By now the children had stopped chasing one another and were standing with their father looking at me. Their mother’s gorgeous eyes were pleading with me to say yes. I couldn’t imagine eating slimy, squishy snails, snails right out of my own garden no less. It seemed preposterous. But, I couldn’t say no. I certainly did not want to disappoint them. I looked away to gather my thoughts and saw the grandfather standing at the fence with his devilish grin. He spoke to his daughter through a thick black mustache and laughed boisterously. I was obviously the butt of his joke.
“Sure. Five o’clock on Thursday.” I had no idea what I was doing. I knew that I would need something to reinforce my will if I was going to get through the snails, so I asked: “Would a bottle of white wine be appropriate?”
“Magnifique, Monsieur! That would be lovely with the escargot.”
So it was that I came to eat escargot for the very first time. I found the snails tastier than I imagined. After the family left, I decided to put escargot on the menu. I bought special shells, silver tongs to extract the meat, and experimented with recipes until I found something as close as I could to the dish they served that day.
The snails were not a hit with our customers. We managed to sell a few orders but not enough to keep them on the menu. I thought about frog legs, but they didn’t do well either. Burgers were one of our most popular items at both lunch and dinner and the requests for French fries were endless. The problem with French fries, I didn’t want to have a deep fryer in the kitchen. Thus ended my short foray into French cuisine. In the end, I stuck with good old American fare.