The Escargot Experience

Escargot
Escargot

 

Just order it.

What’s the big deal?

You love butter. You love garlic. It’s a win-win.

It’s GOT to be delicious.

Stop stalling.

Sitting at an uneven bistro table and fidgeting a plastic menu, the internal war I waged perpetuated an already rapidly throbbing pulse: should I order the escargot? Easy, right? A month prior to this moment, as I sat in my comfortable American bedroom flipping through old issues of Bon Appetite, that answer would have been an resounding, ‘yes’. No hesitation. The purpose of studying abroad in Paris, aside from an attempt at French fluency, was to abandon my comfort zone, which at the time had been free of snails. There would be no Shake N’ Bake where I was going. Duh. I knew that. From that awareness grew a mighty ambition to sample as many ‘adventurous’ dishes as possible. After all, cuisine is a paramount component of French culture. I desired to readily embed myself in it. However once I actually landed and settled into the city, the cuisine was as intimidating as the language itself.

There I was- frantically fanning myself with a plastic menu at a random corner café in the 13th arrondisement, sweating over whether or not I should bypass the usual (and safe) croque madame and go right for the culinary jugular- escargot. Snails. Yes? No? Yes, no. No, yes. Was I finally ready? The beloved traditional French dish would be the perfect transition into a new and advanced taste repertoire. If I could surmount the psychological impediment of eating a snail, then I could eat almost anything else. Almost. Shaking me from these quasi motivational thoughts was our server charging toward the table, which started to teeter alongside my nerves. Show time. A few reluctant French stutters later, much to the busy server’s irritation, and I did it. I ordered the escargot… with a croque madame as backup.

A few of the longest minutes later, and the waiter returned, plopping a small plate of five to six escargots at the center of the little table. My friends and I exchanged anxious glances- we were in this together… but… oh. Wait. The snails were so adorable and seemingly vulnerable lying there on the plate. The one to the far right looked like a ‘Sebastien’. Aww. That’s what I named him. Was I cruel enough to eat Sebastien, and his wife, Sophie, lying next to him… and their children? Their children who had already been through Hell when Sebastian lost his job at the snail market on Saturdays, and the rest of the family had to work the mean streets of Paris just to scrape enough euros to get Sophie that sewing machine she always wanted to make the kids… no! Stop it, Jess. I’d gone mad. They aren’t alive. They aren’t alive. They aren’t alive. Once I assured myself that the snails could in no way resurrect and retaliate by slithering up my face and sucking my eyeballs from the sockets, I could begin.  I snatched the special escargot tongs and fork, grabbed the first shell in sight, and proceeded to poke the mollusk out of his comfy buttery abode. For someone who considered keeping the ketchup inside the burger during a cookout her most laborious dining obstacle, escargot was a challenge. Without permitting the opportunity to renege, I quickly popped the plump escargot into my mouth.

Chew. Hmm. Chew-chew. Hmmm. Chew-chew-chew. Hmmmm. Mmm-hmm! This was nice. This was a new sensation. Complex. Oddly comforting. Food could be complicated? Yes. The morsel was a layered sensory experience. Chewy, but not rubbery. Earthy, but not dirty. Buttery, but not greasy. A tango of flavorful garlic and shallot excited my taste buds as the grand finale, with the faintest hint of a dry white wine that delicately whisked at my tongue for the encore. I never ate food bursting with such intricacy. The table unanimously decided that escargot was wonderful. Sorry, Sebastien and family.

That moment was the first moment I had ever experienced food. All I had ever known about food was that it either tasted good- yum, or that it tasted bad- yuck. Yum. Yuck. Ice cream. Yum. Peppers. Yuck. Apples. Yum. Trout. Yuck. The taste of food had been straightforward, and my brain always had an instantaneous reaction. Nothing existed in between. I either liked something, or I didn’t. Escargot was different. This was the first time I had to stop and think about what I was actually eating. My brain couldn’t instantly signal if it enjoyed or repulsed it. Alternatively, it said, “WOW…this… this is big… wait a minute! I need to process!”

Over a decade later, and I still find myself thinking about that first, terrifying bite of escargot. I had been sheltered and horrified to try something that was delicious just because it looked strange. I concocted every excuse not to try it. The game changed that day in that modest café in the 13th. Onward, I became slightly more brazen during my French culinary adventures, eating foie gras, pig intestine, pâté- to name a few.   Did I love all of it? No. Although each dish progressively stirred my curiosity to try more, and offered a heartfelt appreciation for the art and experimentaion of cuisine and for composing the delicate balance between texture and flavor. French food excels at this, which makes it notoriously the most revered cuisine in the world. I never ate food the same way again. I abandon predisposition, and I actually take the time to process and savor the potentially euphoric experience of pure taste.

Try something new, always.

À la prochaine.

Image is me in Paris 2005.
That’s me. Ready to try anything and ALMOST everything. Paris. 2005.

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  1. Catherine Urbanski

    April 21, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    There has never been a doubt in my mind over what to try on any given menu since the first time I traveled to France many years ago. Escargot is a “go-to” starter in our home. Since being with a Frenchman, I’ve learned to cook his hometown (Paris) favorites! My ultimate favorite dish are kidneys in mustard sauce–but I can equate that from eating kidneys ever since I was a child. My mother loved offal and we thought it was just normal to eat those kinds of dishes.
    That being said, its always a good thing to go out of your culinary comfort zone because chances are, you will love what you try! Nice, nice read!

    1. Jessica

      April 22, 2016 at 6:45 pm

      Merci beaucoup! I agree. I think if I had been exposed to more adventurous cuisine growing-up, I wouldn’t have that initial psychological ‘block’. Glad such is not the case now! I would love to try the kidneys in mustard-sauce. 🙂

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