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."

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Dewey Webb