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8 february 2011

For some reason, as I am reading through the Reaktion Books Animal series, my thoughts always turn to how the animal in question can be eaten. This will stop at some point, because I don't eat lions or penguins or otters, but so far my encounter with these beastly books has been largely culinary.

So it was with Peter Williams's Snail. Snails are another of my favorite foods. Well, I say that as if I got to eat them all the time. I actually haven't eaten a snail in many years. They're expensive; not many restaurants serve them; you can't buy them on the hoof at the Kroger; and getting them in tins and trying to emulate restaurant preparation seems to me a fool's errand. Not only that, but a snail gone wrong is one of the worst things you can be served in a restaurant – rubber gaskets in garlic butter are considerably more palatable.

So you have to get your snails at a place you can trust, in a preparation you prefer: which means being lucky, well-off, and well-placed. Unless your budget and stomach run to a couple of four-star meals out every week, you are unlikely to build the critical mass of local snail savvy needed to maintain an escargot habit.

This seems odd because snails are everywhere. It would seem that they could easily provide a large part of any culture's diet. On the other hand, squirrels are everywhere too, and often said to taste just like chicken, but nobody's opened a KFS in my neighborhood. Many of the snails we encounter in the garden are just too small to matter, and large-scale snail ranching is still a niche market in the United States.

Williams's Snail deals less with the escargot aspect of the snail than with its collectibility as shell, its inscrutability as soft-bodied animal, and its availability as touchstone for the human imagination. More than most creatures, snails have appeal for children and lose it as we grow older. Kids' culture is full of happy snails; adults generally ignore the little guys, if not run screaming from the thought of their mucousy ways.

Williams takes a broad definition of "snail," encompassing a whole range of marine gastropods as well as terrestrial snails (and slugs, which are just shellless snails). [That makes two words in two sentences that I can't find in any dictionary: "mucousy" and "shellless."] Snails have evolved to fill nearly every possible niche on land and at sea, this despite not being able to outrun anything short of positively sessile creatures.

Their general ungainliness, aggravated by the shells that are useful more for thermoregulation than deterring any serious predators, is counterbalanced by snails' remarkable sexuality. Williams adduces examples of snails that are hermaphroditic, change sex in the course of a lifetime, or are positively parthenogenetic. This polyphiloprogenitiveness makes the snail a great survivor.

But snails remain, as I've said, inscrutable. Williams's sweetest speculations are on what a snail might "know": given that it doesn't really have a brain. They don't have ears either, and their sight is rudimentary. They do have teeth, which is one of the stranger revelations of Snail. I guess I didn't ever stop to think about how snails ate their way through all those garden greens. Of course they have teeth, but how odd to think of such little gummy things having teeth. Snail teeth are mostly visible through an electron microscope, but they are one of the wonders of the animal world.

Williams, Peter. Snail. London: Reaktion, 2009.