I had a breakthrough as I sat at a table in the patio of a Parisian restaurant on a sunny afternoon, scanning the menu for what would become my first and only true meal during my stay in Paris, and hoping no one would notice my rumbling stomach. It wasnt a breakthrough about my student visa application to Canada, which according to a polite, bespectacled Quebecois functionary would likely be rejected, nor was it about our familys status in
Spain, where we had a pending residence application. It wasnt even a breakthrough about what to do that night.
It was about escargots.
One sunny Saturday afternoon in Havana, five, maybe six years before I sat in the patio of that Parisian restaurant on a similarly sunny afternoon, Walfrido Samuel Henriquez had described how escargots are cooked. Walfrido — a Cuban professor at the Alliance Française Ã la Havane, where I studied French for nine years — loved food and wine and children. He was also the best language professor one could ever hope for.
Upon learning that the idea of eating escargots made a few of his students retch, Walfrido launched an explanation of the process by which escargots are collected, prepared and cooked. He explained it with a near-lewd smile and faraway eyes, a true omnivores expression, a Francophile one at that.
First you take the snails, he said, and you put them in a little wooden box where not a ray of light comes in, and after a few days the snails are so hungry that they crawl out of their shell. Then you open the box and you take the snails and you boil them in court-bouillon — you boil the shells, too, but make sure its a different pot. Then you push the snails back into their shells and you cover the opening with a paste made of butter and garlic and parsley.
Walfridos description didnt convince me to eat escargots. But it did make me curious. I loved the process he described and wondered who would have ever thought of locking up snails so they would crawl out of their shells. Years later, a Frenchwoman, horrified by my professors tale, said that the escargots dont crawl out. They are only placed in the wooden box, she said, so that they will secrete toxins and slime. And merde too, I thought.
I still liked Walfridos version better, all the while suspecting he had purposefully adorned it, and as I sat in the Parisian restaurant I thought back to it and wondered, for the first time ever, if I should try escargots. I was, after all, a new man now, lucky enough to live in a new world bursting with freedom and possibilities, and escargots had been beckoning me lately, piled together onto small porcelain dishes, striking my eyes with the bold colours of their shells and my nose with the scent of their buttery sauce.
Je crois, I said, looking up at the waiter, que je vais essayer les escargots. I must have ordered a main course too, but I forget what it was. The waiter returned with the escargots a moment later, as if he didnt want me to change my mind, and when I saw them in front of me, sprinkled with parsley and golden with butter, I knew it was too late to do anything but eat them.
A two-tined fork and a tong sat by the small porcelain plate. A mouth-watering scent floated into my nostrils. I grabbed the tong with my left hand and discovered that it fit perfectly around one of the shells. Lifting the shell with the tong, I inserted the forks tines into the opening and pulled out a thicker-than-expected snail. I stared at it, holding it close to my mouth, a thick slab of dark flesh, and something turned in my stomach.
Il faut pas trop regarder, a voice said. It came from a pretty backpacker sitting at the next table. She was blonde and freckled and she eyed me with a curious smile. She was right. No need to look at it for that long.
I nodded my thanks, closed my eyes, and shoved the fork into my mouth.