Blog Post #39
My nine-year-old grandson recently told me he couldn’t wait until he could try pouring salt on a snail. I fear I’m to blame for this reckless desire. I once told him how, as children, my sister and I had explored the chemical reaction and scientific wonder of salting live snails. We did it in the name of Science, for isn’t the spirit of inquiry—isn’t downright curiosity—the basis of all science? A child’s mind is curiosity itself. We had heard an intriguing hypothesis about the effect of salt on a snail, and we performed the experiment to prove or disprove it. So fascinating was it, we experimented more than once, just to see the foaming, frothy miracle occur.
Snails were in abundance in our area when I was a child, leaving their slimy little trails all over the sidewalks and lawn around our home. We stepped with caution across the dichondra that was our lawn, maneuvering as through an arcade game avoiding all the little round spiral hazards. If by accident, the sole of one’s avatar foot came in contact with these hazards, the result would be a terrible crunching sound, and goosh splattering all over said avatar.
Even before the salt experiments, Karen and I were harbingers of destruction to the poor snails inhabiting the ivy in our yard. Shod with flip-flops we tramped through the ivy just to hear that crunching sound so reminiscent of the satisfying snap of crisp fall leaves. I don’t know what we imagined made that sound, but it never occurred to us that each crunch was a tiny life, crushed away by five- and seven-year-old giants. One day our mother saw us and put a stop to it. She told us what was hidden beneath the ivy, and didn’t want the slime tracked through the house, or her ivy smashed. (No doubt the hearty ivy better survived our stomping than those poor, unsuspecting snails.)
It’s been decades since I’ve seen a snail traversing our yard. I don’t know where they all went. They seem to have packed up their tiny camper shells and moved on to greener pastures. Or the real story may hearken back to those experimental days when we came in to grab a salt shaker from the kitchen and our mother wanted to know what we were going to do with it. We dragged her out to the sidewalk to show her, expecting her to be “wowed” just as we were. But she wasn’t wowed. She showed sympathy for those poor little creatures in the face of our rank brutality, convincing me I shouldn’t do such a thing like that again. Sometime after this speech, she went to the garage, got the snail bait, and scattered it all over the yard. Like them or not, snails are notorious for eating and destroying garden flowers and crops (things immensely valued by my mother). They are, in most cases, considered pests, and though my mother had a tender heart for all living creatures, she did not welcome them, favoring the lives of her garden plants more.
This leads to other scientific questions: Which would a snail consider to be worse? Salting—a rapid death by osmosis and dehydration? Or a slow demise by poisoning? Science will never be able to accurately answer this question, since it requires interviewing a snail.
Even though she thought salting them was inhumane, my mother really wasn’t crazy about snails. Once, when I was five or six, my grandparents (both of whom were born and reared in Sicily, and could barely speak English) came to visit our Southern California home from Detroit, where they lived out their later years. Apparently, my grandmother thought to do a great favor for my mother. Wandering in the garden for some time, she at last returned through the back door of the kitchen. Though I was quite young, I will never forget the expression on my mother’s face when she saw her best Wearever pot in my Grandmother’s hand, filled to the brim with mucus-y, tentacled snails slowly slithering over the rim, and leaving disgusting trails of slime crisscrossing every square inch of the pot . (It was a sight I have never forgotten!) Grandmother was going to cook them for dinner. My poor mother. It was clear that repulsion followed hot on the heels of shock. In addition to accosting her delicate senses, how could my mother, (though 100% Sicilian, yet unable to utter a single word of Italian herself ) nicely tell her non-English-speaking mother-in-law, that Escargot (Babbaluci in Sicilian) was NOT happening in her kitchen using these revolting snails and her best cooking pot?
I think my father was there and handled that uncomfortable conversation, explaining that snail bait had been spread throughout the yard in an attempt to eradicate these little calcium carbonate delicacies, and it wouldn’t be safe to eat them. It seems those garden variety snails (Helix aspersa) might have been first class for cooking had they not been exposed to poison.
The looming question became who would clean the pot? Certainly not my mother! (Thankfully, I was too little.) After some unlucky person (who, in fact, probably was my mother) did the initial cleaning and escorting of escargot from the pot, I suspect my mother put said pot through a rigorous disinfecting.
Fast forward four decades or more. I am sitting in an elementary school classroom in Colorado. Teachers had ordered, through a science catalog or some such, some long awaited specimens for the children to study. I happened to be acting as an aid in the classroom the day the surprise specimens arrived. I watched with rapt attention as the children’s excitement increased. Would it be some rare butterfly or chrysalis? An ant farm? I was completely surprised when, placed on the tables in front of the children, (with strict instructions as to how to handle—or not handle—them) were none other than humble garden snails (Helix aspersa), just like the ones we had so conscientiously exterminated from two of our home gardens.
(Suddenly, I thought I could account for the exodus of a multitude of snails from our neighborhood. Perhaps some enterprising person gathered them up and sold them as scientific specimens, and perhaps as food stuff, gleaning sheer profit for his efforts.)
The children did not experiment with the effect of salt on live snails, although in the interest of science, I thought the children might find it extremely intriguing and informative. I thought about mentioning it, but, first of all, it was not my place, and secondly, I knew it would have the same effect as it did on me, my sister, and my nine-year-old grandson. It would create an intense desire to perform a scientific experiment and observe the results. I didn’t want to be responsible for the destruction of those expensive specimens, even in the name of science, so I kept quiet.
(I did find myself asking the air, “You paid for these?”) Maybe when all scientific observation was over, the teachers were planning an extraordinary feast.
I have never salted a snail since my mother encouraged me against it. While I recognize that many a gourmet (or Italian grandmother) relishes snails (Escargot or Babbaluci) as a delicacy, I sincerely hope I don’t meet them in my garden or on my plate from this time henceforward.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Friends, for reading.