Considered a tasty tidbit since sometime in the late Neolithic, today’s garden-variety snail (helix aspersa) has slithered significantly across the path of human history. The first written recipe for snails appeared in France around 1390, in a guidebook on etiquette for young brides entitled Le Menagier de Paris. But it wasn’t until the 16th century, when the Catholic Church classified snails (along with frogs and turtles) as “fish”, allowing them to be eaten on meatless days, that snails began to show up on French aristocratic tables.
But during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe snail-popularity shriveled. Only when Alsatians re-introduced them to diners on the menus of early 19th century brasseries did they once again regain their celebrity culinary status.
If you live in the United States, the snails that are currently gorging on your garden are of early 19th century European origin. Their forebears were imported by French gastronomes who assumed Americans would come to appreciate their delicacy. To their dismay demand for escargot never materialized and the snails were put out to pasture in backyards across America where they have remained ever since.
Surprisingly, there was a second short-lived “Snail Boom” that occured in Northern California around the turn of the last century when Bay Area chefs from Europe were once again offering well-heeled young patrons old-world fare. As a result, a small cottage industry of snail-farming arose that actually saw revenues slide all the way up to the $300 million mark. Sadly, when the Dot-com boom went bust, so did the budding demand for snails. Today, California’s exquisite garden gastropods can once again reside safely in the pleasant twilight of thier culinary disregard.