A Tail of Two Snails – My Love of Food: A Backstory (part 1)
Growing up in central Kentucky during the 1970’s I can honestly proclaim to have been raised about as far from the heart of any kind of culinary utopia as was possible. My household looked like any other you might find in a middle class “Leave It To Beaver” neighborhood. Our family vacations up until I was 10 years old consisted of road trips a couple of hours south to Gatlinburg, TN – that was about it. So when in the fourth grade I found out that my mother and I were going to accompany my father on a business trip to Florida, I was beside myself with excitement. West Palm Beach would be reached via detours through Cape Canaveral and Disney World, and I would get to see the ocean for the first time. My mother was as excited as I was – we were going to be staying at The Breakers, the Grande Dame of Florida hotels – and she knew there wasn’t a chance in hell of us ever staying there again. We set out to make the most of it.
Now, The Breakers had catered to robber barons, Hollywood stars and starlets along with the occasional visiting Royal. That being said, kid cuisine was not something they had ever considered, much less mastered. I was accustomed to the Holiday Inn on Airport Road in Gatlinburg where if I wanted ice or a Coke I just walked down the hall to the vending machines with a pocket full of change. At The Breakers if one wished for, say, an ice cold Coke-a-Cola, one must first order a bucket of ice from room service, then step outside to the poolside bar to purchase the aforementioned soft drink. The experience was, I can say, a wake up call for a 10 year old who was discovering that there were entire classes of people above his middle caste station in life. Dinner was at a pre-arranged time in the formal dining room. Our companions for the trip were another couple and their seven year old son. There are two things I remember from that dinner service. The first was the other couple’s son ordering Cornish Hen (the closest thing on the menu to being kid friendly) and having it served to him on a platter piled so high he couldn’t see over the top of it. The second was even more amusing, my mother’s first and only encounter with escargot. Now, my mother was and is a fairly well informed cook and baker. She knew what escargot was but just couldn’t put her finger on it while reading the menu. However, knowing this was a once in a lifetime experience and escargot wasn’t likely to show up on the local Sizzler’s menu back home, she took a leap of faith and ordered it. As might be expected the dish came to her served in a lovely puffed pastry. By this time she had narrowed down the possible options of what was inside to “some kind of shellfish”. At least she got the shell part right. It wasn’t until Mom popped the first of the critters into her mouth that the full realization set in. To spit out out the creature was unthinkable – to swallow it, unbearable. She was caught between extremes with no way out, and all she could manage to say between clinched teeth was “It’s a snail! It’s a snail!” So what did I, the adoring loyal son, do in the moment of my mother’s distress and potential greatest social embarrassment? I laughed myself silly. My father was shooting looks at my mother across the dinner table that he had previously reserved only for me, looks that usually preceded a lecture or well deserved beating. I was starting to like how the other half lived. Dinner, I thought, had never been this much fun.
Looking back on the experience, there is one thing I would change. No, it’s not my mother’s choice of appetizers. What I wish I had done was to reach across the table and pluck one of those escargot dripping in garlic butter through it’s puff pastry dome and tried it for myself. As it was, it would be another dozen years before I tried snails for the first time. Done right, I actually like them. To this day my mother still shudders when she sees them on a menu. From that one experience I learned that the boundaries I carried around in my head, whether about a certain way of life or a certain type of food, did not tell the whole story. There was more to be experienced than what my rather sheltered life in central Kentucky had shown me up until then. Nothing, it seemed, would ever be the same.