Shitty Cooper. Know him? Probably not, unless you were from the small town where my wife grew up, and then you, like everyone in town, would know Mr. Cooper, and you would matter-of-factly and always refer to him as Shitty Cooper as if that was a common name. Heck, for all I know, Shitty Cooper was his last name, as in Bob Shittycooper, of the Buckston Shittycoopers. Still, even if it was his last name, everyone in the small community where everyone knew everyone's business, agreed that he was aptly named. I never knew what he had done to deserve the name, and being an outsider, no one seemed to figure it was any of my business. If I did inquire as to the reason, I got the old, "Oh, you know," as if there might have been an article about it in local newspaper -- probably one of the issues I missed. Shitty was long dead even the many, many years ago when I first encountered his name, so his legacy was and still is enduring. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? How might people refer to me when I'm gone?
If there is going to be a descriptor attached to my name, I don't think it will be "shitty." There are a couple people in my past that might be justified in calling me Shitty, and to them I apologize -- if I had known better, I would have made better choices. Overall, however, the vast majority of people I've met in my life when asked about me would be much more likely to say "Who?" Given enough prompts (including maybe a picture), a few of them may be able to remember me enough to say, "Oh, you mean 'Old Scrapple.'"
Scrapple is something that really does say a lot about me. It is a rustic dish, a mix of pig offal and corn meal associated with the German/Dutch communities in rural Pennsylvania. I was introduced to it by my father-in-law, and since his family didn't much care for it, he was pleased to find that I really liked it. It was a small but significant bonding point for us. In his hometown, scrapple was pretty much a staple in the grocery store, but out West where I live, finding scrapple is all but impossible. Determined to be able to enjoy the food again, I learned to make it. Even if I say so myself, I've learned well, and I'm very sure that my father-in-law would be pleased with the results. I don't live quite as lonely a culinary life as he did -- fortunately my daughter and both my granddaughters love it as much as I do -- but among my circle of acquaintances, I am alone in the appreciation of scrapple. And with much the same sad, patient charity that they extend to the old toothless guy that decorates the outside of his house with hubcaps, people have come to accept that I prepare and eat scrapple.
What can I say? My culinary proclivities are towards rustic foods, the foods that come from the resources at hand, the kind of foods that flow from the fields outside to the table. A simple meal of tomatoes, garlic, onions and basil over fresh pasta is delicious with ingredients from the garden. Collards, which grow like weeds, make an intriguing side to a meal. And zucchini, a plant that is unrelentingly fruitful, is easily turned into bread, soups or fritters, all of which are sustaining and delicious.
To this list of locally obtainable foodstuffs, I now have added snails.
In the Central Valley of California, if you have a garden, you've got snails. Although there are over two hundred native species, there is one snail of particular interest to the cook -- the brown garden snail. The little guys were apparently imported here by European immigrants as a food source, and I guess everybody found out they like burgers and fries better, so the snails got thrown out, discovered they liked the weather, and proliferated under the shrubs by the front porch. Just plant any leafy green vegetable in your garden, and it's like a dinner bell being rung for snails. They swarm (albeit slowly) and can eat the leaves off a plant in a single night. The brown snail is, however, the same snail as is raised commercially in Europe, sold to restaurants, and served as escargot. (Just like everything else, there are quite a few edible species of snails, some more prized than others, but our California brown is a Helix aspersa, the eatin' kind.) So ... if they can be eaten, were brought here to be eaten, and are just sitting out there in the yard waiting to be eaten, what conclusion might you come to?
[Waits for gagging sounds to subside.]
I had once before seen snails served for dinner. I was in Japan, and on the dinner table was relatively large snail in its shell sitting on a little tripod that held it with the opening of the shell up. To eat the snail, one dropped a small cube of some kind of fat into the shell, lit it on fire, and waited for it to burn out. This apparently cooked the snail. Then using your chopstick, you pried the snail out of the shell, and ate it. Even in Japan, which is noted for its consumption of pretty questionable foodstuffs, there was only one person at the table willing to try the snail. He did, and he lived, and little did I know that it was a portent of what was to come.
You can buy snails that have been raised for consumption. You can get ones that are canned and imported from places like France, or you can get live domestic snails from snailsinthemail.com starting at $15 a piece (discounts given for larger quantities). Another alternative are the Washington state free range, shelled, frozen vacuum-packed snails from marxfoods.com starting at $72 for an eight ounce package. You can go this way if you want to save time and the hassle of going outside. Or for crying out loud, you can open the door, root around under the bushes and come up with a meal's worth of snails in a matter of minutes.
That's what I recently did. I prepared them two ways: first in a garlic-butter sauce, the classic approach to escargot, and then as the protein component in stuffed clams, obviously substituting snails for the clams.
All snail preparation begins with cleansing your snails from anything undesirable they may have eaten. That simply means that for about two weeks, you keep the little guys in a nice clean container with only cornmeal or fresh greens to eat. Clean the container every day, and mist off the snails from time to time to get them used to being clean. A day or two before you cook them, give the container a good cleaning and leave no food -- you want the snails to fast. When you're ready to cook them, get a pot of water on to boil. Check your snails to make sure they're alive. Trust me, you'll notice the dead ones right away. If you've got any doubt, take a toothpick and give the snail a little poke. If it's alive, you'll get a reaction. Now take only the live snails and throw them in the boiling water for three minutes.
After three minutes, take them out and pull them from their shells -- just poke the snail with a fork and give it a twist and a bit of a pull. Then wash the naked snails three times in a vinegar solution (half cup vinegar per gallon of water).
Put the snails back into a pot of fresh boiling water, lower the heat and let them simmer for thirty minutes. You can spice the water with some salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves ... or not. This is one of those "to taste" options. That's your basic snail preparation. At this point they're ready to use or to freeze.
Just to make sure I could eat the snails, I melted four tablespoons of butter in a pan, added four minced cloves of garlic and cooked that for about five minutes, making sure the garlic didn't burn. Pour that over the snails and try them. They are very much like clams in texture and taste, darker in color and just a bit gamier, but not bad at all.
For the stuffed snail, get yourself the following:
- About 24 prepared and chopped snails
- 4 tablespoons of butter
- 1 medium onion, minced fine
- 1/4 cup of green or sweet pepper, minced fine
- 1 large egg
- Pinch of kosher salt, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning, or to taste
- dash of cayenne pepper
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- Bread crumbs for topping, fresh or dried, optional
- 4 clam shells, optional
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the onion and pepper; cook until softened. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.
Place bread crumbs in a bowl. Add the egg and mix. Add the salt, pepper, garlic, Old Bay, and sautéed onion and pepper; carefully turn until well mixed. Add the snails, mix gently and put into the clam shells or shape into 4 patties. Sprinkle with a small bit of paprika, if desired.
Bake at 400 degrees F for 20 to 30 minutes, checking at 20 minutes, or until the stuffing sizzles and the tops begin to brown. If using plain patties, pan fry in butter until golden brown.
This, my friends (if I have any left at this point), is the way to eat snails. First of all, for the squeamish, there is no snail-like texture, and if you were unethical enough not to tell someone what they are eating, they'd never know. Second, this is a nicely seasoned food, so that you get a nice delicate experience of the flavor of snail without it slapping you in the face. Presented in a clam shell, they taste like any other mollusk in a mix.
And if you still need convincing to try this tasty treat, remember that snails are indeed mollusks, related to such other tasty treats as clams, squid and octopuses, so they have an excellent culinary pedigree.