They leave shiny trails of slime on your sidewalk and across mulched beds. They hang out in your potted plants and under broad-leafed hostas. You might wonder if there is a fast way to slow the march of the garden snail on your property. Backyard escargot, perhaps?
Technically, at least some of your backyard pests are probably edible, but experts give lots of good reasons you shouldn’t. We’ll explain.
Know Your Snails
First, we have to understand cornu aspersum, better known as the common brown snail. European in origin, it is now the most-widely distributed snail in the United States.
These snails are one of the slowest animals on earth, but they also make short work of the leaves and stems of crops and other plants. Snails and their shell-less relative the slug go by the name gastropods, which means “stomach foot.” The body and organs of the snail are situated above the foot of the animal, with the stomach just above it. By producing mucus from the glands of the foot, the snail can move by sliding along the slimy mucus surface.
“By planting gardens, we create the perfect environment for garden snails,” explains Ric Brewer, owner of Little Gray Farms in Quilcene, Wash. “Mixes of food sources, shelter, water … we basically create perfect homes for them.”
Snails’ Trails to the Table
Snails are not a recent fast food. Prehistoric humans ate snails as part of their diet, and early Romans often farmed snails to meet the demand for cuisine for the upper echelon. However, many poorer communities harvested their own snails from fields and gardens, keeping the damage under control and adding much-needed protein to their diet. In France, escargot has been a delicacy since at least the 1500s. “Escargot” is simply the French word for “snail.”
The common brown garden snail, also known as the petit gris snail, feeds on living and dead plants. The U.S. government classifies them as an invasive garden pest — and most gardeners agree. This land snail, formerly known as Helix aspersa, was probably introduced to the western coast of the United States around 1850 by import.
It’s not the only snail in the U.S. A predatory snail, the decollate snail (Rumina decollata) is being used as a control for the brown garden snail. The United States has several other varieties of snails living within its borders, including the larger Giant African snail (Achatina fulica) eats a variety of crops and lives in warm, moist areas such as Florida. The rosy wolf snail (Euglandina rosea) is a type of carnivorous snail that feeds on other snails (the snail is no relation to the author).
Slow Food on the Ranch
Brewer has had an interest in snails for decades, once leading a conservation project that focused on an endangered snail in Tahiti. His interest grew to include heliciculture (snail farming) and using snails as a viable food source. “When I discovered that there were no snail farms in the U.S., I decided to make my own,” he says.
He farms the comu aspersum for processed food as well as snail egg caviar. His process uses what he calls the “full-circle” practice of raising escargot in open, outdoor pastures. His farm harvests, cleans, de-shells and ships the snails, primarily to Seattle-area restaurants. Because snails are an invasive species, the USDA forbids sending most species of live snails or snail eggs across state lines, and live snails may not be imported into the United States as a food source. But the USDA does allow permitting for interstate movement of snails in order to establish a snail farm.
Eat Garden Snails? Probably a Bad Idea
Can you harvest and eat snails from your own garden?
The answer is you probably shouldn’t. You have no idea what they have been snacking on.
Snails could eat snail and slug killer, or ingest pesticides or chemical fertilizers in your garden or surrounding area. Edible Communities suggests you follow a process that includes purging, or cleansing the snail’s system of any toxins. The process involves feeding them a strict diet of greens, then cornmeal or oatmeal if you choose to harvest and process local common brown garden snails.
Another type of snail found in the United States is the Giant African Snail. This species can carry a health threat to humans. Eosinophilic meningitis is caused by the rat lungworm parasite, angiostrongylus cantonesnsis, and the snail is an intermediate host. Infected rats carry the adult worm, passing immature worms through their feces, and snails eat the infected feces. The disease, also known as ratlung, jumps to humans when they eat the host snail, through raw or undercooked snails, or by eating unwashed produce.
Rat Lungworm is primarily found in Southeast Asia, Australia, Africa, the Carribean and other tropical islands. But it has also been found in land snails in Hawaii, Louisiana, and South Florida. Hawaii alone has seen 82 rat lungworm cases in the past 10 years, with two of them resulting in death.
Eosinophilic meningitis can cause a range of problems, from headache and vomiting to blindness or paralysis. Local snails caused some cases. Eating produce contaminated with snail mucus caused others.
Now that we have shown you the dark side of the garden snail, you understand why you might want to gather your gastropods from a reputable source, like Little Gray Farms or Peconic Escargot in Cutchogue, N.Y. Neither farm ships live snails due to USDA regulations. But they do sell freshly processed snails as a tasty alternative to canned snails. You can simply cook snails in garlic butter for a tasty meal.
Peconic Escargot offers cooking tips and recipes on its site, including babbalucci (Italian snails with red sauce) and mushroom and Peconic Escargot tart. Little Gray Farms has a free downloadable book of escargot recipes such as escargots aux chanterelles et à la bière and gratin d’escargots.
Slow down, and enjoy the meal.