It’s an old joke: A snail walks into a VW dealership and selects a very sporty convertible with all of the trimmings. But before signing, the snail makes an unusual request, “I would like to have all of the VW symbols on the automobile removed and replaced with the letter S.” An odd request to be sure, but the dealer agrees and asks “Why? Why do you want all of the VW symbols removed and replaced with the letter S?” And the snail replies, “As I drive down the street - with the top down and my sunglasses on, I want everyone to look at me and say: ‘Look at that S car go!”
In 1972 I had my first escargot when I was a lad of ten. My family was visiting San Antonio, Texas, and were having dinner in the fine French revolving restaurant atop The Tower of The Americas. (I was concerned, what was going to prevent our dinners from sliding off of our table due to relentless centrifugal force?)
Until 1996, it was the tallest (750 feet!) observation tower in the United States, being built in 1968 as the centerpiece for the World’s Fair.
I had never had a more thrilling experience in my little life!
To get to the restaurant, one must take an elevator. This particular elevator was entirely made of glass, which appeared to be barely connected to the exterior of the very skinny and very tall column.
When the doors closed, the elevator whooshed us straight to the very top - faster and faster - totally non-stop!
I had just read, probably compulsively, the Roald Dahl book, “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”, where after hurtling right through the roof of the chocolate factory in their very own and very similar glass lift, Charlie, Mr. Wonka, and Uncle Joe encounter the slimy, evil grey-green amorphous characters: the Vernicious Knids (Ver-nish-shus K-nids).
Was this our fate too?!
Would we rocket through the restaurant into the blue beyond?
When we got to the top, would the Vernicious Knids be in wait for us? Ready to attack and devour?
Or perhaps, just perhaps, seeing a business opportunity... serve as our waitstaff for the evening?
Externally remaining calm and aloof, but mentally enraptured with glee, I scrutinized the earth moving further and farther away. My young mind was whirligiging rapidly, preparing for the preposterous...
Thankfully, the elevator did not fly into the sky and managed to stop at the top.
After a slightly worrisome hesitation, and with great trepidation, the elevator doors slowly slid open to reveal a shockingly civilized oasis of decorum.
My internal tizzy was dashed forthright.
The host, who was obviously NOT a Vernicious Knid, seated us next to the window, and one could sense, (ever so subtly), that the entire room was indeed rotating, rotating, rotating ever so tediously slow. That, and the, shall we say, “elevator music” playing, quelled my tumultuous mind.
Being mature, I dismissed the notion that Vernicious Knids even existed a’tall.
From the very humdrum human waitress, I ordered my usual Roy Rogers (with a twist please, cherries take up too much room in such small glass), and while my parents enjoyed their Tanqueray Martinis, I let it be known that I had been hoping to spot at least one Vernicious Knid after our riveting glass elevator ride.
My father, not being well versed in the latest tomes of children’s literature, did not understand my esoteric reference, sipped his bone-dry gin and looked at my mother, who of course did, and recognized my deep disappointment.
“Well, Brian, I am sure you had your hopes up, and quite understandably so, but you shouldn’t be totally disappointed, they are on the menu.”
Quizzically I tried to peruse the menu, but with no success, it was all written in French. Kindly, my mother informed me that, in French, Vernicious Knids were escargot!
Oh, my! I was internally back beyond delirium!
Not only was I going to see a Vernicious Knid - I was going to EAT one!
When our earthling waiter asked what I would be having as my first course, I excitedly asked for Vernicious Knids!
My mother, very gently, reminded me that this was a French restaurant, and one must order each item in the native tongue.
Quite succinctly, I said “Es-car-got, pleeeeease!”, while hiding the fact that my eyes were rolling back into my head with euphoria. My parents ordered the same.
I was perfectly aware of escargot, I had watched my father consume them with gusto on many a prior occasion, but what I did not know was that they were actually Vernicious Knids! I had always been fascinated by their shells, enamored by the unusual implements which required to consume them, and intoxicated by the intensely exotic aroma that permeated the table when they would arrive.
With our plates presented, I could see the Vernicous Knids’ bloated little bodies in bubbling greenness that spilled virulently from the hard brown spirals. Their pungency was immediate, and I mimicked my father’s motion of fanning the wafting bouquet and inhaling deeply. I studied my mother’s hands as she clasped the peculiar pincers about a shell to steady it, and darted a slimly tined fork in deep to extract the innards.
I followed suit, and it was a bit tricky for a young mind on how the tongs worked, squeezing opened them, releasing them made them taut - the opposite of what I was thinking - but I managed and speared my very first Vernicious Knid on the very first try!
Just as the book had described, it was rather shapeless, slimy-looking, and a sickly phlegm-ish mossy green-grey. I popped it into my mouth. I discovered that Vernicious Knids were… delicious… fabulously DELICIOUS!
For decades after that, if Vernicious Knids were on the menu, I ordered them. I remember a young lady with whom I was trying to make an impression, was totally grossed out!
I guess she had never read Roald Dahl.
Yes, I did eventually notice a menu with an English translation that they were simply snails, but that didn’t bother me a bit, by that point I had already eaten dozens.
I don’t enjoy escargot as often as I would like, rightly so, I reserve them for special occasions.
But when I do have them I am just an excitedly curious ten-year-old boy in a spinning restaurant in the sky eating deliriously delicious Vernicious Knids.
Escargot à la Bourguignonne
Serves: 4 first course servings
Time: 30 minutes
Special Equipment: cleaned snail shells (often sold along with snails), or escargot baking dishes, or button mushroom caps with the stems removed, or little ramekins.
1 small garlic clove
3/8 teaspoon table salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced shallot
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon dry white wine
12 to 16 snails* (from a 7- to 8-oz can)
About 2 cups kosher salt (for stabilizing snail shells)
Accompaniment: French bread
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 450°F.
Using a heavy knife, mince and mash garlic to a paste with 1/8 teaspoon table salt.
Beat together butter, shallot, garlic paste, parsley, remaining 1/4 teaspoon table salt, and pepper in a small bowl with an electric mixer until combined well. Beat in wine until combined well.
Divide half of garlic butter among snail shells. Stuff 1 snail into each shell and top snails with remaining butter. Spread kosher salt in a shallow baking dish and nestle shells, butter sides up, in salt.
Bake snails until butter is melted and sizzling, 4 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately.