When I was twelve or thirteen I asked my mother for enough money to eat at an upscale French chain restaurant, Longchamps, as my birthday present. My friend Juli and I went alone, on the bus, to the local shopping center. The restaurant had white table cloths and the waiters were in tuxedos. We were the first guests, as we went quite early in the evening in order to catch the last bus home. They welcomed us as if we were royalty, bowing slightly as they showed us to our seats and held out our chairs. Our waiter whisked a large white cloth napkin on my lap, and handed me an embossed menu larger than the top half of my body. We looked to the waiter for suggestions.
And so I began my romance with fresh parsley, chopped garlic, and escargot. The fat escargot, served on a scorching hot round tin plate with indentations for the delicate pale shells, seduced us by their aroma before we saw them. The waiter, delighted by our unabashed enthusiasm, taught us how to hold the snails with a special tong, as well how to pull the snails out of their shells with a tiny fork. We sopped the bread in the indentations holding the buttery remains, sated only when every last bit was gone. We were presented with little bowls with petals floating in them, told to lightly run our fingers in the water to clean them from our excesses. (Thus I was saved from the embarrassment of drinking from a finger bowl.)
From then on I have always relished dipping bread in the garlic butter sauce, even preparing it when there are no escargots. Sometimes I use this sauce with fresh clams; other times mushroom caps; but have been known to eat just fresh home baked bread, garlic, parsley from my garden, and good butter.
We had just started wearing stockings (and garter belts – this was long before panty hose.) When we left the restaurant it began to rain. We huddled against the wall and hid each other while removing our stockings, one by one, so we wouldn’t get them wet in the torrent that followed while we waited for our bus in the dark. We stood barefoot, against the wall, until finally the child in each of us broke loose, and we danced around, not caring about anything but being grown up enough to eat out in a restaurant where waiters hovered over us and we could eat anything we liked. The garlic memories danced in our mouths until long after we got home.
My sophomore year in college my friend from grammar school, Juli (now called Juliette), and her much older and sophisticated beau took us to dinner in a real candle-lit restaurant, with obsequious waiters and an extensive menu.
Iceberg lettuce was the only lettuce I had ever eaten before. That night we had romaine lettuce in our Caesar salad, crisp and cooling, coddled egg sauce (which the waiter prepared at the table for the salad, mashing in the delicate anchovies) and crispy croutons fried in butter. I do not understand how anyone who has had a proper Caesar salad can desecrate it with chicken or other additions.
I had my second escargots that night, drenched in a thick butter and garlic sauce, each plump snail in its own hollow in the circular plate topped with the sauce and fresh garlic. Juliette’s beau showed us again how to use the escargot tongs, and gave us permission to dip our bread into the left-over sauce. As if he could have stopped me.
NEW YORK SNAILS & MOUNTAIN OYSTERS
All along I had been eating and cooking snails. Not fresh ones, of course, but the kind in a can tucked into a hearty plastic sleeve with delicately striped taupe and white shells piled on top. Fresh parsley was available in grocery stores when no other herbs were, or, alternately, there was dried parsley and butter along with freshly chopped garlic.
The garlic was not chopped as fine as I learned to chop it later at the Cordon Bleu, nor did I know how to peel it by a firm swack. I pulled with my fingernails until it was naked, then cut the garlic clove in my hands with whatever dull knife was at hand.
I purchased numerous gadgets to cut both the parsley and the garlic. There was a chopper-type thing inside a clear container. I would raise the metal chopper thing up and down rapidly. Ultimately it chopped what was in the bottom, but the effort seemed arduous. I tried scissors for the parsley, but they were not adequate. It was years before I learned what good kitchen scissors are – like Joyce Chen’s little sharp red ones that will work wonders on a small batch of French parsley, or my Henckels that will cut rosemary from the bushes outside my window. But somehow I got it done. I had six plates with six hollows for the shells, and six metal holders, which you squeezed to open enough to hold the shell. I even had the tiniest of forks to pull the snails out. I used good butter, and even the fainthearted among my friends learned to enjoy them. If they didn’t, they could at least mop up the sauce with French bread I purchased, and I would eat their snails.
The snails I had in Paris, with real French bread, were better than the ones that I cooked. Or maybe it was being in France for the first time. Maybe it was just France. Although one can walk through the huge Parisian Chef’s Market, Rungis, and see tin plate after tin plate with stuffed snails, ready to be popped in the oven, it is possible to see, even in the modest “Super U’s” of France, five or six kinds of fresh snails on ice, ready to be cooked by the enterprising chef or housewife.
When I fixed (the southern word for “cooked”) snails for Neil, his mother, Corrine, and her husband Saul, I hadn’t started out to fix them at all. I was already a good cook, if not a baker, when I met Neil. My trip to France had heightened my awareness of food. After a brief time living in the lower East Village, I moved to an apartment with three women. There was little cooking being done there except for a Weight Watcher’s recipe of someone’s that had limp pea green canned asparagus and a caraway laden Swiss cheese on toast, I think, all heated up in the little toaster oven. I did cook at Neil’s, simple suppers we both enjoyed, and on occasion cooked for his mother and Saul. It was not unusual for Neil to ask me to cook birthday dinner for Corrine.
I dearly loved Corrine, with her perfectly made-up plump face, long acrylic painted nails (the first I’d ever seen) and tastefully chic clothes. We went to Church together every Wednesday and Saturday, so we were very close. It was easier to accept her love than Neil’s.
Neil said that his mother had a favorite dish she hadn’t been able to get in New York – mountain oysters. I had a real appreciation for oysters and other seafood, and presumed that mountain oysters were, like mountain trout, a fresh-water variant of some sort. There were a lot of things I’d never eaten – after all, I had only recently eaten my first fresh omelet and first loose leaf lettuce in France the previous summer.
Neil picked me up on Corrine’s birthday and said we were heading downtown, I assumed to the fish market. But no, we wound up in the slaughter-house district. That’s when I found out we were – I was – cooking not oysters at all, but an oyster-shaped meat, also called lamb fries, which was – were – testicles. I felt a bit stunned, but game. And then a bit more stunned to find out that so many animals had testicles. Well, I mean I knew all mammals had testicles, I suppose, or something like testicles, but who knew that ducks had them? And veal? And pigs, large and small? And who knew they were so cheap? They were about twenty five cents a pair. We figured a pair per person would do, but we couldn’t figure out what kind Corrine liked, and what the best were, or even what size, or shape. I also felt that we needed some for me to practice on.
The butchers, who found it humorous, no doubt, to tell me how to cook them, told me I could slice them in half and sauté them like scaloppini, or batter and deep fry, or roll in crumbs and pan fry, and on and on. They could hardly contain themselves with the debates – whether to peel them or not to peel them, and which kind were best. I soaked it all in, and wound up thoroughly confused. We left with nearly $30 worth of testicles – from marble shooter sized duck pairs to small lamb and veal pairs, piglet pairs, porcine pairs, and even steer pairs.
Walking down the street, we passed a Chinese man selling snails. They were in tin cans that were about two cups in size. Their price? One dollar. Having previously spent up to $10 for the kind that came in the tiny can with the shells piled on top, inside a plastic sleeve, I was thrilled! What a bargain! We purchased two cans and happily set off for Neil’s high-rise.
Neil dropped me, the snails and the mountain oysters off. One of the cookbooks I had brought with me – which one I cannot remember — said to put the snails in a wooden keg or barrel, sprinkle them with oatmeal, and then cover the barrel with a cement block. I was on the 15th floor of an apartment on East 86th Street, and there was neither a barrel or cement block. So I put the snails, still in their shells, in the sink with the oatmeal and the liquid that was in the can.
Neil’s apartment was a typical New York one. The dining room table stood immediately inside the entrance, to be pulled out during dining. The kitchen was adjacent. The living room formed an “L,” with a porch opposite the dining room table. I covered the table with newspapers, using platters to hold the various types and sizes of mountain oysters. Neil’s large butcher’s knife in hand, I practiced on the mountain oysters. I peeled some. I cut some in half. I fried some. I marinated some. Testicles piled high on the table, I went to the porch with the cookbooks, sat in the sun and mulled over the dinner.
I dozed, perhaps, in the warm sun. It was delicious to be alone and not with all my roommates. As I stood and walked back to the kitchen, I thought I heard a sound. A little clicking. Standing at the kitchen door, I realized it was the snails, clicking around the kitchen as they hauled their shells on their little feet.
These were very tiny snails, much smaller than the snails that come in cans. They were no bigger than my fingernail. Now there were hundreds of them, roaming around Neil’s immaculate kitchen, having been rejuvenated by their snack of oatmeal and water, and eager to explore their surroundings. They were between the stove and the refrigerator. On the walls. On the ceilings. On the floor. On the cabinets. And they were alive. All of them.
I suppose it was self-evident that they were alive when I put them to soak in the water. But it wasn’t to me. Once I realized they were alive, I became squeamish at the idea of picking them up.
I ran to the apartment next door, where two men lived. I hadn’t really met them, but I had seen them when visiting Neil. I knocked frantically on the door, and when they came to the door I was too speechless to articulate the problem. They came rushing back into the apartment with me.
There, some peeled, some not, some sliced, some not, piled high, in all sizes and shapes, lay the mountain oysters, with the bloodied knife resting on the cutting board. The men took one look at me and turned on their heels. This occurred a long time before Jeffrey Daumer, an infamous murderer who dissected human bodies and ate their parts, but they clearly had an instantaneous impression of a mass murderer -- or at least a mass castrator. “No,” I said, “you don’t understand.” They kept running, to the elevator. I ran after them.
When I caught up with them, sans knife, I must have looked easy to overcome by force, so they listened. They started laughing in disbelief, and followed me to the apartment. Bless their hearts, they helped get all those snails up while I put the mountain oysters in the refrigerator.
When the snail removal was half done, Neil returned and helped with the rest, laughing as hard as the rest of us. I proceeded to boil the snails in their shells, then remove them from the shells and bake the shells to sterilize them, like the book said. And then it hit me. These were New York City snails. They had been roaming around, God knew where, eating whatever. The oatmeal was to clean out their digestive tract. I didn’t believe it had been cleaned in the short time taken pepping them up to jump out of the sink.
I threw them all away and sent Neil out for more snails. The kind that came with a plastic sleeve of shells. And the mountain oysters? The best kinds are duck and veal, fried. I’ve become a specialist in them now.
The French call them frivolities – to me a peculiar name for something so integral to the procreation of mammals – and have quite a number of ways of preparing them. So, too, do people out West. Here’s my favorite recipe:
When I was thirty I found myself running a restaurant in rural Majorca - one hour's drive from the major city, Palma. I could hardly believe I had been hired.
My then-husband, David, whom I had married after Neil and I had broken up, was the bookkeeper. I was the chef. Neither of us spoke Catalan, the patois of French and Spanish spoken in Majorca. I had barely scraped by college Spanish, confident I would never need it. Wrong again. The maitre d' and one of the waiters spoke English, but not the maids who helped in the kitchen. The restaurant occupied an old finca, or farmhouse, built around an olive press. A massive olive tree kept watch just out the door of our bedroom. I could pick figs and roses during the short walk up to the restaurant.
I had never even worked in a restaurant before I became Chef. Armed only with an Advanced Certificate from the London Cordon Bleu, I had no idea how little I knew.
One evening, it rained just as we closed the restaurant for the evening. We hadn't seen much rain. We welcomed it, and that particular, fresh smell rain brings after a long dry spell. Taking a drive down the dark and winding country roads, we started seeing little lights dotting the fields and vineyards. We were bemused - even, perhaps, a little alarmed. Could it be poachers? If so, what on earth were they poaching, and why were they using flashlights to do so?
The next morning, we were eager to share our observations and went up to the restaurant together quite early, finding all the staff -waiters and kitchen staff alike - already assembled.
All around the kitchen were buckets of snails. Small snails. Alive. I eyed them warily, alert with memories of Neil’s live snails. The lights we had seen were lanterns and flashlights owned by all the local people, searching for snails with enthusiasm. The staff viewed us with a bit of derision for not having a few kilos of our own to add to the stash. We were to have a snail feast!
There was a great deal of joking about how many snails a typical person could eat, most people claiming 100 each, and a long discussion about the preparation. The upshot was that the snails were washed, placed back in the buckets whose tops were covered with a wire mesh to prevent the snails from wiggling out. The snails were to be fed cornmeal, rosemary or fennel until Sunday, which was several days away, as well as a day when we didn't serve lunch. (Some people say to purge them rather than feed them. But feed them we did. I was told it affected the flavor. I cannot swear to it.)
After church on Sunday the normally empty kitchen was full of people talking and moving rapidly people. The maids, their husbands, the wife of the arrogant Maitre’d, were busily scrubbing snails, dressing, cleaning and rinsing ducks, separating eggs.
I joined the Maitre’d in moving several tall stockpots to the back of the stove. To each we added a dead and cleaned duck, a dead and cleaned chicken, handfuls of thyme and fennel from our garden, cut up onions, cut up tomatoes, salt and pepper and water. We opened several bottles of a favorite Spanish white wine, added water to fill the stockpots three quarters of the way to their brims, and covered them with lids. We cooked these all together for an hour or so, and then, finally, added the snails, their shells scrubbed before being rinsed in vinegar and water. Their veils had been removed as well.
With the gas turned on high under the pots, we waited again until bubbles appeared and then turned the heat down to a simmer. The aroma was tantalizing. We were all ravenous. Meanwhile, we whisked eggs with oil to make the aioli, the local farm-raised eggs mounting easily. We pulled down the ripe red Majorcan tomatoes from the white tiled arched hallway where they were strung together, separated by knots, to semi-dry. One group chopped the tomatoes until, after what seemed to be a tortuous long time to me and my stomach, the pot’s contents were deemed “done.” Pulling out the chicken and duck with tongs, we let them cool until we could remove the flesh from the bones and discard the skin. We scooped up the snails and put them in another pot while we boiled the stock down to a rich, full flavored broth, as sumptuous as any eaten in a three star restaurant.
Finally, duck, chicken and snails were stirred into the thick broth and we ladled the mixture into bread lined bowls, adding dollops of the aioli and the tomatoes. I headed to the terrace, where I could look out at the acres of fig and olive trees and the roses lining the walks. I ate my snails slowly, wondering at the magic of the midnight rain. I think I ate a hundred, but how can I be sure?
1 cup olive oil
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled
Salt to taste
1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lemon
Freshly ground pepper
Crush the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of salt together on a board with a palette knife and place in a bowl or process in a food processor until it makes a paste. Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until thick and air is incorporated. Slowly add the oil until thick. Taste for seasoning and add the lemon juice, pepper and more salt if needed.