A Child’s Guide to Heliciculture, or The Story of the Little Grey Snails


In December, the world feels like a broken palace.  We wander the ruins at dusk, yanking out clumps of rye and talking about how there was once a garden here.  We trundle around in dirty voile dresses, talking about Miss Havisham and glass horses and headless cupids.  Down in the valley, the windows are glowing.  We can smell mushrooms, simmered in beef stock and butter, but we also smell crushed anise–something has passed by here, and broken the stalks.

To prepare escargot, you must first find a nest.  I don’t know how you will find it.  Perhaps you will find an outgrown garden, swollen with unplucked, wormbitten turnips, monstrous grey zucchini, soft carrots shrouded in curled shame by dry, crisp tops.  You will sit on a crumbling cinderblock, and you will watch, burying your cigarette butts beneath graveled hunks of soil.  If snails are capable of lurking, they’ll be lurking here.  What do snails do when they lurk?  They do what they always do, which is: snail around, and bite soft things, and make love to themselves.  Snails are incredibly creepy.  Their purpose in life is to increase snail-ness, by whatever means necessary.  Which means if you sit long enough, in a rotting forgotten garden, you will see a snail (after having lovingly snailed itself, perhaps over a period of hours) make a nest.

The nest will be filled with snails–perhaps fifty to a hundred.  The snail will dig the nest with its foot (which is also its whole body.)  The nest will be only a few centimeters deep.  Once the eggs are laid, the snail will cover them with soil, and then hie off, probably to go snail itself again.  Mark the spot with a stick, and visit it every week.  After a few weeks, the snails will emerge.  They will have spent their time in a typically snail-like fashion–eating their own egg shells, and then eating each other, in order to gain the strength to pull themselves from their graves into the wide world.  The great, wide world of snail food and snail friends and snail foes and general snailing opportunities.  The night was made for lovers, but also for snails, who are their own lovers.

The infant snails will be loathsome things–pale and clear and slimy, like discarded retainers.  Nonetheless, you must gather them up.  Force cold rough gloves onto your red stiff hands, and gather up these wriggling, transparent young snails.  You will wonder what is becoming of your life, and then you will put the snails in a box.  Preferably it is a wooden box, with holes drilled in it.  Add some soil to the box, and make sure there are worms in the soil (snails like to eat dirt, and worms like to eat dirt after snails have eaten it.)  Make sure the box is warm and wormy, damp and squirming, blind and questing.

What snails love best is a mixture of decayed matter and carrion, because they are the Devil’s own snails, but you must give them green things instead.  This is because snails will taste of whatever you feed them, and since you probably do not want to eat a mixture of decayed matter and carrion (I am assuming here that you are not a snail yourself), you must feed them beautiful and clean things.  The French like to feed them dill, or apples, or artichokes, or celeriac, or parsley, or cress, nettles, sorrel, roses, henbane, and yarrow.

You must keep your box of snails in the kitchen, that you might keep an eye on it.  Your warm, dark kitchen, from which the light fades by four in the afternoon, these days.  You must try not to sit in your warm, dark kitchen, sipping Carménère and staring at your box of snails.  This way lies madness.

The time will come for the snails to be purged.  If you do not purge the snails, you will have to eat whatever lies in their snaily stomachs, and so you must purge them.  The old method is simply to feed them nothing for a few weeks–for you to starve the snails, as they lurk in their little box, and drink wine to forget you are trapped in a dark kitchen with a bunch of creepy dying snails.  But nowadays we are more compassionate–we feed the snails cornmeal for a week, and then we make them fast for another.  They do not lose as much weight, this way.

After they are purged, you can boil your snails live.  Boil them for three minutes, or until they are dead.  Place them in a cool fresh brine, and then rinse them.

Your snails are ready for anything now, but I don’t care what you do with them.

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