In 1970, when I was nine years old, I thought everyone ate snails in shallot butter.
My father, a French chef, presented them to me during one Sunday lunch.
“Voilà, les escargots,” he announced as he pulled out from the hot oven a special indented plate which held each snail individually. Six shells held six tiny black coiled figures tightly, cozily nestled between two layers of shallot and parsley butter, which had melted into small golden lakes. The sizzling, liquefied butter bubbled frantically around these islands of shells and the steam, which rose from them, corkscrewed quickly into my nose and greeted my nerve endings there for the first time, tickling them, awakening them, translating to my young brain that this was good.
My father then gave me a pair of silver tongs, put his hand over my right and together we gripped one shell. We held it steady while my father took a frilly-topped-cellophaned toothpick, rammed it into the opening and pulled out the snail’s perfect C-shaped frame.
“Voilà, your escargot,” he said.
He held this dangling, curled gastropod below my nose and as though I was hypnotized, I couldn’t turn away. I could see the small pieces of shallot, like confetti, still wet on the snail from the butter that had melted away. But it was the smell that took hold of me. The shallot’s aroma lifted itself from that small body like a vapor and quickly filled my nostrils with its strong whiffs of sharp onion, which then tumbled into the undertow of the parsley’s grassy scent. I had no choice but to eat this delicious fragrance.
I snatched the snail off the waiting toothpick with my teeth. Those sweet and savory smells lived on my tongue for only a few seconds. Three glorious, bouncy bites of the salty ridge of the snail exploding against the shallot, the parsley, the silky butter and it was swallowed. Magnificent.
“I want more,” I told my father after I had toothpicked and devoured the five others.
“Sorry,” he said, “today you only get six.”
The next week for my ninth birthday, my father made the snails again.
“Joyeux Anniversaire, Christine,” he declared, setting down the snail-laden plate in front of me. I saw his thick fingers then point to them and I inhaled his faint piney scent of Aqua Velva as he put his face near mine. “Voilà, your escargots,” he said quickly, trying to hide his giggles from seeing my excitement.
Then in his sing-song English, knowing he pronounced it incorrectly because he knew no matter how hard he tried, he could never get his tongue up behind his teeth to make the American TH sound, so he said it the best way he could, he uttered, “Happy Birdsday.”
I was giddy, holding up my toothpick. I was ready for my present of snails. This was a momentous event. I knew those escargots had been purchased where we always bought foods for birthdays, communions, confirmations, holidays –– at the very expensive European grocery store on Broadway, a few blocks from where we lived. I sat at the laced covered card table in the living room with my mother and one-year-old brother, Philippe. In our three-room apartment here in Astoria, Queens, the living room was where we spread out our meals for special occasions.
My mother, who had made the salad and set up the card table, was the sous chef to my father who always cooked the star of the meals: the meats, the fish, the poultry. This was their unspoken rule when my father wasn’t cooking in the kitchens of the 21 Club, La Côte Basque, Café des Artistes where he prepared French cuisine feasts, which had taken over American dining starting in the late 1960s, preparing meals for Babe Paley, Richard Nixon, Gael Greene, the Beatles. He made fifty-five dollars a week.
This time I had twelve escargots all to myself. My brother in his metal high chair had already begun to eat his cut up pieces of ham and scrambled eggs. Escargots were clearly not for babies. They were a ticket into the adult world taking their place with boeuf bourguignon, pot au feu, tripes, ratatouille – all those dishes I considered adult because I didn’t eat them, they weren’t served to me. Maybe my parents thought my palette wasn’t developed yet so they made me simpler meals but today, in their eyes, I had reached a proper gastronomic age for escargots – an entry-level dish into their world.
The now familiar oniony scent wafted up through my nose just like the week before, binding themselves to the excitable cilia, hitting the molecules there, which kick-started the neuron to my brain, translating that this was delicious ¬–– that they always would be.
The next day in school, I told my friend Betty about the wonderful gift my father had given me. She grimaced, then put her hand over her mouth and made gagging sounds as though she were about to vomit.
“Gross!” she yelled, while jumping up and down, hyper with her judgment. “Snails? Your father made you snails? And you ate them? Why would you do that? That’s like eating a big snot. Oh my God, your father gave you snots for your birthday and you ate them!” she exclaimed loudly.
Other children gathered around us and upon hearing Betty, pointed at me and in unison screamed, “Ewwwww! Snot eater! Christine, you are so gross.”
I immediately knew in that compact, humiliating, blue-and-gray-Catholic-school-uniform huddle, that I had made a mistake. My fate was sealed, laminated now in that schoolyard. I was already the odd girl out, the French girl –– the non-American, I wasn’t even of Italian or Irish descent –– the two immigrant groups which ruled our neighborhood –– but instead, I was the one who came to school with oily sardines on a baguette. My pâté sandwiches could have passed for Spam but that narrow, un-American French bread always gave me up. I was the kid whose mother had never heard of peanut butter, so how could she possibly make an American peanut butter and jelly sandwich? I was the girl who had not yet eaten a slice of pizza and when I finally did in the fifth grade, I thought the air-pocketed crust underneath the cheese was mashed up tiny round noodles.
I realized immediately that my French family’s food was not something to discuss in the American world. And I realized too late in that taunting circle that the other children, that my friends did not eat escargots at home. They didn’t experience the shallot, the fetal shaped body. They didn’t have the silver tongs, the toothpicks, the special escargot plates with small dents to hold each snail. Nor did they have the shells, which were washed and dried on rows of paper towels, put back one on top of the other in a plastic tube, and then placed on a high shelf in our kitchen cabinet. I was the only fourth grader in Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Astoria, Queens, New York, who had her own snail-eating accessories.
I didn’t fight this fact. I accepted it because I loved those escargots so much ––those small, adorable univalve animals, those darling herbivores; I loved the way the calcium shell held the escargot’s male and female reproductive organs spiraled together; I loved its scientific name, the helix aspersa, loved its black eyes sitting on those ultra sensitive tentacle stalks, that nocturnal creature with its muscled, slightly ruffled foot, which had been slowly sliming the earth with its mucous since the Paleozoic era. I had eaten its relatives: clams, mussels, scallops, oysters but my devotion remained with the mighty snail.
Was that because when I visited my French cousins we spent long summer afternoons picking snails off their backyard bushes, putting them in empty egg cartons, pretending they were living in their little houses? Did I long for those days? I believe I loved those escargots because I loved my father. And I felt his love echo back to me. My father made me escargots in shallot butter for my next fifteen birthday lunches.
That afternoon the tradition began. I watched his thick fingers shove the shallot butter into the shell first, insert the snail’s body, then close it up with butter again. His fingers were like that of a graceful artist the way he pushed aside the excess butter as though it was sculpting clay so that it just followed the curve outside of the shell’s opening –– no more, no less.
My father then sat the twelve escargots each in their own holes in the metal dish, whistling “Que Sera, Sera” the entire time. I stood close to him, watched his every move, wanting so much to see and understand how he created this wonderful delicacy. After he put the snails in the oven to bake, he jokingly smeared a bit of leftover butter on my nose. I didn’t flinch, but instead, expected it.
“T’aime ça?” he asked. “You like this, right?”
So how could I not love him for all that?
My parents gripped onto their native food because they had to hold on to something from the old country, otherwise they were convinced they’d be erased; or that they’d be unrecognizable to those they had left behind.
My father had served me my heritage in that Queens, New York apartment by making those snails in shallot butter. I knew they would always be there –– those escargots were in the twisted-ladder of my DNA, they were huddled in my red blood cells, they practically swam in my veins, rode my doughnutty platelets there. And veins, my mother had always told me, were the rivers leading to the heart.
About the author:
Christine Shaffer has been published in Edible Queens, Weston Magazine, the Westport News, The Leaflet (the Journal of the New England Association of Teachers of English) and CT Bites. She is the winner of 2011’s Fairfield’s Public Library food memoir contest and also in 2011 was one of the five finalists for the Fairfield Book Prize, judged by poet, Charles Simic. Her essay, “As It Will Be” is forthcoming in ‘You: An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person’ from Welcome Table Press. Christine holds an MFA from Fairfield University. She is currently at work on her memoir: French Girl, French Food: An American Story. Her blog is Frenchfoodandme.com. She can also be found at open.salon.com/blog/frenchgirl