Snails: The Slowest Food of All [Audio] | Civil Eats

Snails: The Slowest Food of All [Audio]

Gastropod visits a Ric Brewery's snail ranch in Quilcene, Washington.

shutterstock_229712065Ric Brewer got his first taste of snails by gate-crashing a high-school French club field trip to a French restaurant in Seattle. He ate the escargots on a dare but loved them — so much so that somehow, decades later, he found himself quitting his job, moving out to the Olympic Peninsula in coastal Washington, and investing everything he had to launch one of America’s only snail ranches.

In this episode of Gastropod, we visit Ric Brewer, owner of Little Gray Farms, to learn what it takes to raise the “shrimp of the land,” including purging, de-sliming, and kinky snail sex.

Humans have been eating snails for at least 30,000 years, based on the archaeological evidence. Last year, scientists found evidence of the world’s first snail feast, along the Mediterranean coast in Spain. Thousands of years later, the Romans enjoyed their snails fattened on milk, while monks in medieval Europe kept snail gardens, as snails were classified as neither fish nor meat according to the Catholic church, making them a valuable source of protein during Lent.

Today, though snails are often thought of as peculiar French delicacy—one that most Americans only encounter on vacation or at a fancy restaurant. What’s more, in the U.S., snails are usually imported in cans, a process that gives them their reputation for rubberiness.

Eaten fresh, Ric Brewer says, snails are a revelation: tender little clam-like nubs of meat, with a woodsy, mushroomy flavor. Inspired by their flavor, their healthy profile (snails are high protein, low in fat, and rich in essential fatty acids), and their tiny footprint, Brewer quit his day job, persuaded his mother’s friends to donate the snails that were the bane of their herbaceous borders, and founded one of the only snail farms in America.

The learning curve was steep. He got some basic instructions from Italy’s Istituto Internazionale di Elicicoltura, or the International Institute of Snail Farming, but adapting them to Washington State hasn’t been easy. “You find out just how many things love snails,” Brewer said. Earlier this year, he lost a good chunk of his stock to mice, which got into his greenhouse and “feasted on them like you would popcorn at the movies.”

So what does a snail ranch look like? Brewer provided photos of his tiny farm, which can house thousands of snails.

Snail FarmRic Brewer’s cabin in Quilcene, Washington. Photograph by Ric Brewer.

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Snail warehouse 2Snails in Brewer’s warehouse in Seattle. Photograph courtesy Ric Brewer.

Snail warehouseSnails in Brewer’s warehouse in Seattle. Photograph courtesy Ric Brewer.

Snail penThe snail pen at Quilcene. Photograph by Ric Brewer.

Brewer told Gastropod that the one thing everybody asks him is about snail sex. There are three main things to know: snails are hermaphrodites, snail sex takes hours, and it involves firing (occasionally lethal) little darts at each other. He provided this video, to satisfy those who have a stomach for snail smut.

For more on the history and science of raising snails, listen to this episode of Gastropod. We discover what it takes to make it as a snail farmer, and ask the big question: is America ready to embrace fresh, local snails?

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Top photo by Sinelev/Shutterstock

Nicola Twilley is author of the blog Edible Geography, a contributing writer at the New Yorker, and currently teaches a Regional Foodshed Resilience Practicum at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. She is deeply obsessed with refrigeration, and is currently writing a book on the topic. She recently explored China’s coldscape for The New York Times Magazine, and, in 2013, she curated an exhibition exploring North America’s spaces of artificial refrigeration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation. From 2011 to 2013, Twilley was a Research Fellow at the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, as part of which she collaborated with Geoff Manaugh on Venue, a pop-up interview studio and mobile media rig that traveled around North America in 2012-3, and is currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art. Read more >

Cynthia Graber is an award-winning radio producer and print reporter who’s covered science, technology, food, agriculture, and any other stories that catch her fancy for more than 15 years. She’s reported on ancient farming techniques in Peru’s Andean mountains, a scientist uncovering the secrets of regenerating limbs, and a goat with million-dollar blood. Her work has been featured in magazines and radio shows including Fast Company, BBC Future, Slate, the Boston Globe, Studio 360, PRI’s The World, Living on Earth, and many others, and she’s a regular contributor to the podcast Scientific American’s 60-Second Science. She was a 2012-2013 Knight Fellow at MIT, and her radio and print awards include those from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the international Institute of Physics. Read more >

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  1. Erinn
    I'll admit it, I'm curious about the snail smut, but where is it? Is the "video" a trick to demonstrate just how long snail sex last? Where are the daggers? I'm so curious!

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