The Crawl of the Wild

They're slimy . . . they're sluggish . . . they're spineless! They're also the backbone of what is literally the creepiest commercial enterprise in town.

Sacrebleu! Is this any way to run a business?
If your business happens to be snail ranching, you really don't have much choice. "We're not out to make a million dollars," says part-time mollusk mogul Terry Beckman, one of the founders of Escargot Express, a Cave Creek operation that supplies live snails to local restaurants. "Believe me, there are easier ways to make money."

Not to mention faster. After riding roughshod over a quarter million head of petit gris ("little gray") snails for nearly a year, Beckman and his three partners are only now beginning to enjoy the sweet smell of success. During the past months, however, they've subsisted primarily on a considerably more pungent aroma.

"Ever been to an earthworm farm?" asks partner Gary Niemier, leading the way into a 97-foot Fiberglas greenhouse that shelters several dirt-filled feedlots simply crawling with snails. "It smells a lot like this. You've got all these little critters in here giving off castings, and there's bound to be a little bit of an odor."

Sorry, epicures--the scent of snail-in-the-raw is a far cry from the savory wafts of garlic generally emanating from the little fellow in his cooked state. And don't expect to find him lounging around amidst mountains of delicately seasoned breadcrumbs, either.

"These guys are ravenous today," says Niemier. As he chucks lettuce wedges into the slithering fray, he reports that the voracious univalves manage to devour up to 250 pounds of greens per week. "I threw a head of lettuce in a cage this morning and it's already gone."

Fat, dumb and happy? Don't underestimate the thought processes of these appetizers-on-the-hoof. "They're pretty ingenious little critters," explains Beckman as he rounds up several escapees who have somehow penetrated both a screened fence and a rock-salt barrier that ring the feedlots. Using a long pole to dislodge a slew of particularly cunning fugitives who are crawling across the greenhouse rafters, he says, "If there's a way to get out, they'll find it."

Why any snail might choose to abdicate this invertebrate wonderland is something of a mystery: Unlike their garden-variety cousins, the Escargot Express snails are treated as guests, not pests. Dark, dank and earthily odiferous, the greenhouse provides the clammy crawlers with a climate-controlled atmosphere that's a little bit of mollusk heaven . . . or as close to heaven as a mollusk can get before finding himself up to his feelers in sizzling- hot garlic butter. Swamp coolers insure that the temperature never rises above 90 degrees, while a sprinkler system guarantees a hothouse humidity of between 80 and 90 percent. Lulled into a false sense of security (an Escargot Express snail need never worry about anything as mundane as blinding sunlight or vindictive gardeners), the hermaphroditic creatures have even stepped up their normal reproductive patterns and now lay eggs four, rather than three, times per year.

With luck, a wild snail can live up to the ripe old age of five. His hothouse counterpart at Escargot Express can consider himself fortunate if he ever sees a full calendar year. Sometime around his first birthday, when his camper shell measures in at a length of between one and one-and-a-half inches, the unsuspecting snail is plucked from the feedlot and plumped up for market in a feeding tank. Following a two-week cornmeal binge, the hors d'oeuvre-of-the-future is transferred to yet another cage, where his digestive tract is cleansed on a strict all-water diet.

The doomed snail is now ready for market and will join several dozen of his comrades in a Styrofoam carry-out container that is trundled off to a local restaurant. From here, his fate rests in the capricious tines of the city's more daring diners. If business is slow, he'll have time to curl up in his shell for a lengthy snooze in the refrigerator; Beckman reports that in temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees, snails are capable of hibernating up to three months without any loss of body weight. (To bring him out of his stupor, simply soak him in water for a few minutes.) And if business is brisk? Well, look at the bright side--how many slugs wind up as the opening act in a gourmet dinner?

Unfortunately, says Beckman, not nearly as many as he and his partners had originally hoped. Although the company has identified more than 130 Arizona restaurants whose menus feature snails, the Escargot Express currently stops at fewer than twenty of those establishments on a regular basis.

"The biggest problem we're having is that a lot of chefs have never had any experience using anything but the canned stuff," admits Beckman, whose product (which sells for $7.95 a pound) is comparably priced with tinned imports from Taiwan. "They don't know how to prepare fresh snails, they're worried about the shelf life, and they're still not real comfortable with the idea of keeping snails in the cooler."  

According to Beckman, another reason that some chefs have been slow to hitch their wagons to live snails is that they doubt that diners will be able to tell the difference between fresh and canned. Shaking his head, he says, "That tells you a lot about what they think of their customers, doesn't it?"

Conceding that "fresh anything is preferable to canned," one local chef counters that "from the kitchen's standpoint, fresh snails are very labor-intensive. It's a whole lot easier to open a can than it is to stick a pin through a snail's head and yank him out of his shell."

But thanks to the company's canny marketing plan--local restaurants received complimentary tubs of sample snails, complete with serving suggestions--more and more chefs are beginning to holler, "Oh, yoo-hoo . . . snailer!"

"I like the idea of using something that's grown closer to home," says Le Relais chef Christopher Gross, who deems the local crawlers "as good, if not better" than the fresh Canadian imports he'd previously used. Now available in seventeen restaurants throughout the state (as well as Phoenix's Euro Market, the company's only retail account to date), the Escargot Express product serves as the basis for a deep-fried snail appetizer at the Valley's two Salt Cellar restaurants, can be found atop the Wigwam Resort's signature escargot pizza and even inspired Jean-Marie Rigollet, chef at Scottsdale's Marche Gourmet, to develop what may be the world's first escargot tamales. Can Snail McMuffin be far behind? Don't hold your garlic breath. In spite of the partners' prediction that snails may well be the shrimp cocktail of the Nineties, restaurant experts feel that forecast may be a mite optimistic. Explaining that the country's food-hip firmament has never been more adventuresome, Nancy Backas, senior food editor for Restaurants and Institutions magazine, agrees that "there's probably more acceptance of escargots than ever before." Nevertheless, snails are so low on the menu totem pole that when her magazine recently surveyed a cross section of restaurants in order to track American dining trends, escargots were mentioned so infrequently that they didn't even appear in the final tally. "You're never going to see something like escargots in a mid-scale restaurant. Snails are not something that Americans are real comfortable with--they seem very weird and foreign to them."

If snails (fresh or canned) have been slow to glide down America's gullet, that's probably because gussying up garden pests with garlic butter is few people's idea of a gastronomic good time. This sad fact of snail-marketing life provided one of the funnier moments in The Jerk, a 1979 comedy in which a nouveau riche hick (Steve Martin) creates pandemonium in a snooty restaurant when he accidentally orders escargots. Berating a waiter after a platter of the stuff is ferried to his table, Martin points to the offending appetizer and roars, "You would think that in a fancy restaurant like this . . . at these prices . . . you would be able to keep the snails off the food! Why, there are so many snails on there, you can't even see the food!"

Seven years ago, you could have expected a similar reaction from the president and founder of the Snail Club of America, a loose-knit association of 900 snail ranchers and escargot fanciers. "Time was, I wouldn't have eaten a snail if you'd paid me $100," recalls Ralph Tucker, a 73-year-old California rancher who today eats little else. Dubbed "America's most avid snailsman" by People magazine, the retired TV bowling show host is now generally regarded as the country's most vocal escargot activist.

"Snails are the biggest thing on the scene today," claims Tucker, who reports that he's developed a premium hybrid (modestly called "the Ralph Tucker snail") which he hopes will one day be regarded as the escargot industry standard. "Snails compare with all your other specialty foods like pate and things like that . . . only we outdo them all."

Now in the sixth stage of a somewhat hazy seven-point plan to snailize America, Tucker chatters enthusiastically about new horizons in escargot consumption. Currently simmering on the back burner is a proposed plan to break down the restaurant industry's resistance to fresh snails by offering chefs a commission on every order of escargots sold. Also on the drawing board: a line of frozen hors d'oeuvres that Tucker is convinced will revolutionize snail-snacking. "We'll have them smoked, we'll have them barbecued, we'll have them in pasta . . . all the chef has got to do is throw the thing in a microwave. What could be simpler?"  

Meanwhile, back at the Valley's snail ranch, Beckman and company aren't letting grass grow under their escargots, either. As he and Niemier prepare another order for market, Beckman reveals big plans for their little livestock: Escargot Express is looking into the feasibility of supplying local bars with snail-racing tracks; come summer, the company may branch out by marketing snail eggs as "escargot caviar," a delicacy that is reportedly even more expensive than its beluga counterpart. For the time being, however, the company is simply interested in killing the snail that laid those golden eggs. Chuckling as he fills a plastic bucket with freshly purged snails, Niemier says, "This is the beginning of the end for these guys. They're lucky, though. After they get out of here, they get to go to all the finest restaurants in town.

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