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Friday, November 9, 2012

Eating Snails

My introduction to French cuisine and especially escargot came many years ago in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was spending the summer with my best friend and his girlfriend.

To celebrate Nicole's birthday, Matt took the three of us to a tiny French restaurant uptown with a lovely outside garden and a string quartet on the stereo.

I had not experienced snails before but was not about to miss the opportunity. They were cooked in garlic and butter then reinserted into their shells, and they came with an escargot fork for easy removal.

You could eat and enjoy a brake shoe if it was cooked in enough garlic butter, but in this case no effort was required for me to plunge in. Lots of wine didn't hurt but wasn't necessary for Dutch courage in this case.

Texture? Cooked snails are slightly firm, smooth, no weird bits and no quivering at the back of your throat the way raw oysters do no matter how much you enjoy them, right before they slide on down.

My knowledge of French cuisine is thin, beyond what I have learned from fellow columnist Manon Gros (see last week's column), but escargot is a big winner in my personal "eat what you are afraid of" challenge, like borscht or boiled turkey necks. (That's a whole 'nother column.)

The evening after such a fine meal could be spent many ways. In our case, we took a stroll around town. My friends had left their baby with a babysitter for the first time -- my goddaughter, Molly, was six months. So we walked all around campus, up by the museum and through the grove of trees on campus which turn bright yellow in the autumn and which is large enough to get lost in, momentarily.

The problem is, Nicole wanted to go dancing at a club nearby, and Matt wanted to go shoot pool at Nick's English Hut up on Kirkwood Avenue, and I was caught in the middle.

So the dickering began, and became arguing, and finally, in an effort to lighten the rapidly degenerating mood, Matt grabbed Nicole and threw her over his shoulder like Tarzan, then tripped and dropped her on the sidewalk.

Nicole's cut chin ratcheted the fun level of the evening up yet another notch. We were near the big fountain on campus, so Matt took off his shirt and got it wet and tried between apologies to dab the blood off her chin and wave his arms in explanation all at the same time.

At that moment the phone rang. Molly had started crying and wouldn't stop, and the babysitter had no idea what to do.

Our choice was obvious, of course, as Nicole pointed out: Cut the evening short. So we did, although I distinctly remember her in the car, pressing Matt's wet shirt to her bleeding chin, saying, "But I want to go dancing!"

What a revelation we must have been to the babysitter when we burst in the front door. Matt, wet and shirtless and flummoxed, Nicole covered in blood, and me behind them, looking stupified.

Matt had been working a job where he got paid tips, so he thrust a great wad of dollar bills into the babysitter's hands. She looked as if they were tarantulas. Then she carefully picked among the wet and dry dollars until she had taken what she was owed.

"You paid me too much," she said, sliding the rest back across the table. "And it's wet."

Then she fled out the front door.

The moral of the story: Escargot is great, but it really isn't worth the drama.

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