Considered as a tasty tidbit since the late Neolithic, the garden-variety gastropod 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 was only during the 16th century, when the Catholic Church classified snails (along with frogs and turtles) as “fish”, allowing them to be consumed on meatless days, that snails began to appear 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 regain their celebrity culinary status.
If you live in the United States, the snails gorging on your garden today are undoubtedly of early 19th century European origin. Their forebears were imported by French gastronomes who believed Americans would someday be slurping up these terrestrial mollusks in grand style. Sadly, when demand for escargot never materialized, the slow-moving self-housed hordes of helix aspersa were patiently put to pasture.
There was a brief “Snail Renaissance” in Northern California in the late 1990’s, when San Francisco Bay Area chefs from Europe began offering their well-heeled young clientele a bit of cultural affirmation through old-world 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. Unfortunately, when the Dot-com boom went bust, the budding demand for snails dried up. Today, in gardens throughout California, snails can once attain reach a ripe old age in the pleasant twilight of their culinary disregard.