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My parents, Grayson and Sam, came to New York to recreate themselves, as millions have before and after, and in that giddy rush of love and freedom they discovered food.
Serous food. Food they’d not had in the mid-century culinary wastelands of Philadelphia and Ohio.
Food like snails.
At that time in America, French cuisine was making the first breach against the hegemony of pot roast. Perhaps it was a postwar thing—a generation of American men had fought their way through Europe and came back deep in thought about what they’d seen and helped protect. (My father, who was DDay + 2 and walked from Normandy Beach to Munich, describes French villages offering calvados to the entering American troops—it was all they had left; the Germans had taken all the wine.) After a lengthy gestation, these shifts in American taste would manifest in the runaway success of Julia Child’s two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961. And my parents were swept along in the rising tide.
I grew up eating snails—escargot, in the argot. And I loved them. Bathed in butter and garlic and parsley—hell, you could serve drier lint in that sauce, with a crisp white wine, tell people it’s seaweed or corn fungus, and most everyone would larrup through it. My steak-and-scotch used-car-dealer maternal grandfather (about whom more elsewhere in this blog) would mock me when I ordered snails in restaurants; I would experience the sharp wedge of internal recrimination at his casual pointed contempt, and then the snails would arrive, bubbling hot in their shells in their metal serving dish, served with an elegant tong utensil with no possible use outside of snail consumption, and I would know I was right and he was wrong. These were delicious. And my mother, across the table, ever evolving in her own complicated dance of enmity and need with her father, would take in my enjoyment versus her father’s incuriosity and smile with something approaching pride.
Until I, perpetually fighting overweight, would reach for that second piece of bread to soak up the remains of the butter. Then the balance would shift and I’d get the stern glance.
In New York at that moment, 9th avenue was the foodie mecca. Chic east side matrons might buy their imported canned products at Maison Glass or Copenhagen, but the truly intrepid would find the real deal for less at the much more earthy butchers and provisioners on 9th. And one day my parents learned that their favorite such store had brought in crates of live edible snails from France.
This was new: every snail we’d ever eaten had come from a can. The recommended recipe was simple: soak the snails in a mixture of brandy and heavy cream overnight. The snails suck up the cream, the brandy kills them, and when you cook them, the cream and brandy transmute into texture and flavor.
Sounded hard to resist. Dad went to 9th avenue, used the excuse to pick up a couple of bottles of serious expensive brandy, got the cream and returned home with the snails in a rustic wooden crate, leaking straw. They set it on the counter and turned their attention to a more pedestrian dinner; no doubt steak Dianne, steak in a shallot/butter/cognac sauce; we made it a lot, and if they had purchased an expensive brandy to cook with, I can see them trying their standard recipe with a new twist. My parents being my parents, wine was served.
And then, once the dishes from that had been washed and put away, they turned their attention to the snails. They poured themselves an after-dinner brandy, consulted the recipe, opened the crate and began the process of picking the snails out of the straw, rinsing them in the sink and putting them in a ceramic bowl. And it was at this moment that the fact that these were living creatures, each individual, each yearning, intent on survival, trying to thrive, began to weigh heavily on my mother, whose empathy toward all things trapped and cornered, whether gastropod or human, was an unwavering burning flame. But more brandy and the thought of the final triumphant snail feast rallied her past the self-doubt, much as the sheer goodness of the metal dish of snails in butter had allowed me to metabolize my grandfather’s contempt.
So: the snails were ready, in the bowl. They added the brandy. They added the heavy cream. And with one last snifter of brandy, they toddled off to bed.
But they forgot to cover the bowl.
And when they woke up the next morning, bleary with a sharp brandy hangover, they stumbled into the kitchen…
To find the walls covered in trails of brandy-cream slime, and at the end of each, a drunken, cream-soaked, dying snail.
And so they spent the morning with a ladder and stepstool plucking down snails and scrubbing brandy-cream trails off the walls.
And then, finally, when the entire ordeal was over, they went back to bed.