Although escargot was not served, somehow a snail found its way to a dinner party that I attended last weekend.
The marauding mollusk crashed the party with an invited guest who brought it to be identified. She had found it hitchhiking on a Comcast truck.
The snail in question was a land or garden snail found in yards everywhere. These are the brittle-shelled nocturnal snails that occasionally appear during the day, especially after wet weather, but are more likely to be found out at night. The less common species that joined us for supper was likely a white-lipped bandedsnail.
Land snails in general are fascinating (even when you are not examining them so closely that you can determine the color of their lips). Though they are in the same family as the more familiar marine snails (and probably evolved from sea snails over 600 million years ago), they have distinguished themselves from their water-loving cousins in many ways. Most obvious is that they live on land, so they breathe though lungs.
And it is true that they move at a snail’s pace. That pace, in the case of garden snails, is about two feet per hour. There are a few snappier snails that can zip along at up to 55 yards per hour, but that speed is about as quick as these slimy slitherers can go. Their movement is aided by mucus, which they produce themselves to reduce friction as they slide along. Additionally, this thick slick is protective, allowing them to glide along sharp objects and not get cut or otherwise injured.
Garden snails simply go about their business of eating, sliding and mating. For food, they prefer to consume plants, and are thus derided by gardeners and other lawn lovers as competitors and pests. It is worth mentioning that most of these garden variety snails are not native, but were brought over early on by colonists or came later, hidden in shipments of plants. There are many ways to exterminate them, but by far the most intriguing to me is to eat them.
Most of the species of common land snails are edible. It is a bit of a process to prepare them, as they need to be purged in order to cleanse their system. It is said that striped snails are the least tasty, so choose the variety carefully. Those interested in getting into heliciculture, or snail farming, need to look no further than the Internet for the ins and outs of snail propagation.
Which, of course, brings me to garden snail reproduction. Land snails are hermaphrodites, meaning that one individual has both male and female sex organs. Although they can self-fertilize in a pinch, it is more common that they inseminate each other (after a marathon 2-to-12-hour courtship) and go forth individually to multiply. Up to 100 eggs that resemble miniature crystal balls are laid a few inches below ground level in the soil.
Whether your snail is in your yard or at your dinner table, hopefully it will provide the same inspiration (culinary or poetically) as it did to Robert Browning:
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his Heaven —
All’s right with the world!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.