Considered a tasty tidbit since the late Neolithic, your average garden-variety Gastropod (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.
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 gorging on your garden today are likely of early 19th century European origin. Their forebears were imported by French gastronomes who truly believed that Americans would someday be slurping up the tasty terrestrial mollusks in grand style. Sadly, when demand for escargot never materialized, slow-moving self-housed hordes of helix aspersa were suddenly put out to pasture.
There was a brief “Snail Boom” in Northern California in the late 1990’s, when San Francisco Bay Area chefs arriving from Europe began offering well-heeled diners a bit of cultural affirmation through old-world francophilic menus. As a result, a small cottage industry of snail-ranching suddenly arose that saw revenues slide all the way up to the $300 million mark.
Alas, when the Dot-com boom went bust, so did the budding demand for gastronomical garden gastropods and today California snails can once again thrive langorously in the pleasant twilight of their culinary disregard.