It was Father's Day at Duff Lane Pond in Middleton where I noticed the biggest snail I had ever seen. Normally, a snail does not catch my attention, but this one was no ditch-bank jobber--it was the size of a half-dollar coin on the bottom. Not only was the snail large but he had an abundance of buddies around. The shallow water seemed to have a big snail every square foot or so, and I could see them stretching out across the bottom of the pond.
I never would have thought that Idaho could produce snails that large. I thought big snails needed a tropical environment or at least one more temperate than Idaho in the winter. Last I checked, freezing is hard on snails.
When I made the discovery, I immediately started having hungry thoughts. It is kind of a sad state of affairs that my initial instinct when I see something in nature is to figure out if it is food. But as a classically trained chef, escargot sounded nice; after all, snails are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world.
But I was a little hesitant about plucking this one out of the moss-covered water and eating it. A year or so earlier, I had stuck my foot in my mouth over wild-gathered foods when I claimed to Guy Hand that you could eat clams out of the Snake River. I was later proven wrong by Steve Lysne, a biologist from the College of Western Idaho. Apparently, mercury and other toxins can build up in the long-living Asian clams that I was eating. In no hurry to repeat this self-poisoning behavior, I decided to contact Lysne again about my newly found snails.
As it happens, Lysne is the author of a convenient little book called A Guide to Southern Idaho's Freshwater Mollusks. According to the book, these types of snails, Radix auricularia, are not commonly found in the Treasure Valley. They are most often located in the Wood River Valley, near Sun Valley, and in the Bruneau River area. They are originally a type of pond snail imported from Europe to control algae blooms, and they are also called Big Ear snails because of the large aperture that makes a distinctive ear-shape on the shell.
When I got the clear from the professor, I went back out to Duff Lane Pond armed with a pair of hip-waders, a small mesh bag and a leaf rake. It didn't take long before I had about three dozen snails out of the bush and in my hand. Talking with Lysne later that day, he said, "It is kind of a win-win to eat the snails: stopping the spread of an invasive species and feeding yourself at the same time."
Eating the invaders has actually become a common trend around the country. Think carp, bullfrogs, dandelions and wild boar as examples. Websites like eattheinvaders.org are hugely popular. So popular, in fact, that a book has been published about the topic, Eating Aliens: One Man's Adventures in Hunting Invasive Animal Species by Jackson Landers. The book description on amazon.com says it shows "how anyone can feed a family while enjoying the thrill of the hunt and helping to protect and conserve the natural environment." Now, that is my kind of conservation.
I put the snails on ice and drove them back to my house. The typical method for preparing wild-caught snails, invasive or not, is to let them "clean" themselves in a wooden box while covered in cornmeal. You replace the water and cornmeal every other day for about a week. This gives the snails long enough to discharge whatever they had been eating and stuff themselves to the gills with corn meal. I love this method, mostly because I don't particularly like the taste of half-digested pond algae.
After the snails have had time to clean themselves out, the next step is to blanch them in boiling salted water. After cooking them for about five minutes, they should be shocked in ice water. Then the tricky part comes: getting them out of the shell. The shape of the snail shell makes it difficult to remove the meat. I used a chopstick and a small skewer to gently swirl the meat out of the shell.
Apparently, I must have struck at the exact wrong time of the year for harvesting the snails. Every other snail was full of tiny snails, shells and all. But as the species was introduced to the area and invasive, I didn't feel bad about killing that many breeding adults. With the tiny little shells in half of my snail meat, I was forced to cut off the chewy suction cups for meat. That really cut my yield down.
With the meat removed, I then froze them for good measure. Many methods can be used to kill stray bacteria, but the combination of boiling and freezing seemed to be fatal enough for me to eat the snails comfortably.
I then chopped them into quarter-inch chunks and boiled the bejeezus out of them in sherry wine and garlic. The sweetness of the wine and the pungency of garlic is a classic escargot preparation. After that, I baked them covered in bread crumbs and parmesan, then added a little roasted red pepper for good measure.
I tested my wild snail concoction out on the Boise Weekly staff. In a swanky downtown bar, I rolled in with a soup bowl full of cooked snails and passed it around with little crostini. It was well-received and most eaters had a look of shock on their face when I explained what the dish was.
It struck me that this could be a great cause for the locavore movement to get behind--we should all eat the invaders.
Duff Lane Pond holds another creature that has struck my interest as a non-native species. While searching for snails, I watched a pair of common turtles swim off a log and into the murky water. These are not the native painted turtle from up north--these guys are house pets that now have a breeding population. So it seems that I need to figure out how to catch a turtle. I am saving the environment, after all. Soup anyone?