The Boston Phoenix
October 1 - 8, 1998

[Out There]

Eat the snail!

The faltering vegetarian confronts his worst fear: a meal that's still alive

Out There by Dan Tobin

This is about redemption, in edible form. It's about a vegetarian who faced the dark side of the force and triumphed, who battled fearsome creatures and restored his own faith.

It's also about snails.

You see, I'm a bad vegetarian. As in, I try not to eat meat but I do slip from time to time. I refuse to consider myself a full-fledged carnivore until I actually pay for meat; in the meantime, every curious taste, every weak moment at the buffet table -- these don't change my dietary affiliation so much as indicate dissatisfaction with it. I'm still a vegetarian. I just haven't been very good at it lately.

I stopped eating meat in high school, back when I was anxiously awaiting Arsenio's comeback and comparing Extreme's third album to Sgt. Pepper without a trace of irony. I switched partly for moral reasons, partly for health reasons, and partly to impress a girl. Okay, mostly to impress a girl. She was so hard-core, she'd say endearing things like, "Every time I have eggs I feel like I'm eating an abortion." I was in love.

That was five and a half years ago, and my meatless diet remains despite my having lost all the reasons for initiating it. I'm not as concerned with those moral things anymore, I've gotten more colds since I abandoned meat, and I never got further with veggie-girl than a slow dance at the prom. I mean, it was "Wonderful Tonight," but still. Bean curd is looking less and less wonderful each night.

I'm frequently put to the test now, as I try to restrain myself from the temptations of so many succulent thighs and breasts -- and that's just at KFC. But one recent evening sent me clambering for my tofu quick, fast, and in a hurry. All it took was a few snails at dinner.

Bubbles has scammed a free meal at a fancy-schmancy restaurant opening -- five-course dinner, open bar, pseudo-Parisian atmosphere. In my book, free food comes somewhere between cleanliness and godliness, and closer to Zeus than to Mr. Clean. I readily accept.

I order a rum-and-Coke ("Your finest cola, sir"), and Bubbles and I meet our dining partners for the evening. Chip is quiet and nice, Dale is loud and nice, and we all get along famously. While discussing The X-Files, Dale volunteers his Gillian Anderson fantasy: on a desert island, he surrounds her navel with maraschino cherries and then fills it with Häagen-Dazs rum-raisin ice cream. Dale has clearly given this a lot of thought, and I can't decide whether to worship him or run from him in fear. I choose to worship him in fear.

The waiter mistakes Chip for a friend of the chef, and our reward is a glorious edible aquarium. I'm a pescovegetarian, so I'm foaming at the mouth with excitement. I dig in, as does Bubbles, who broke free of her vegetarian shackles a year ago and has never looked back. Dale abstains, citing bad memories of shellfish from Nam. Post-traumatic stress disorder is fine by me, especially if it means more food.

I scarf down several shrimp bigger than my thumb, leaving the crab and lobster for Chip. I've never tried raw clams or oysters on the half shell, but the rules change when cost is nil. I get experimental. I'm even contemplating digging into the mound of mollusks in the center. As Biggie Smalls once said, "Escargot, my car go 150, swiftly." I don't really know what that means, but it somehow makes the snails even more appealing.

Then I notice a disconcerting movement on the plate. Maybe the rum is stronger than I'd thought, because one of the snails appears to be wiggling. Another dances in its shell, and I slowly realize the four of us are not alone at the table: our appetizer is alive.

I point this out to the group, poking a snail with my fork to demonstrate. It retreats into its shell, and I retreat into mine, both of us quite distraught. Chip is amused, Bubbles starts naming the snails, and Dale shares his wisdom on the subject.

"Oh yeah," he says exuberantly. "You pick them up and suck them out of their shell." Then he makes this horrible slurping noise -- SSSSLLLLIP!! -- that I'm sure I'll hear on my deathbed. "Or," he continues, picking up a skewer and lunging into the ice, "you stab it, pry it out of its shell, and eat it." Another horrible slurp.

In other words, the choices are (a) put the snail into my mouth alive and kill it with my teeth, or (b) stab it to death, then eat it freshly killed. Both seem a little too hunter-gatherer for a bistro. Maybe I could do it in a Saigon trench, but even then I don't know. I try picturing Dale ducking enemy fire and grabbing a snail out of the water at his feet. SSSSLLLLIP!!

The snails remain on the platter. I focus my attention on the bread.

The next day, I decided it was my fault: I was so provincial and uncultured that I'd never encountered the common delicacy of live snails. Food experts around the office were quick to dispute that interpretation, although they did agree I was uncultured. They also informed me that the clams and oysters I'd eaten had been alive. That didn't thrill me, but at least they hadn't been wiggling.

The snails' movement remained a mystery, with each potential explanation more disconcerting than the last. Had the chef forgotten to cook them? Were they an ill-conceived decoration? A nose-thumbing at the ASPCA? Animatronic snails à la Disney? Or had we really been meant to eat them alive?

I've killed plenty of bugs, and I used to help my dad smear peanut butter on mousetraps when I was a kid. But I've never eaten the corpses of my victims. Even at summer camp, we threw back the only fish I ever caught. These snails made me wonder whether there was actually something to the morality I once feigned in order to get laid. Could I really kill an animal just to eat it? Most carnivores don't think about where meat comes from -- it's hard to associate a McNugget with anything in nature, let alone an actual chicken. And meat looks like food, not flesh.

The point of no return is a lobster, since it's impossible to separate the animal from the meal. Cooking it yourself means killing it yourself, and in a pretty grisly way. It weirds me out, but I'll eat it. A live snail is a whole other matter, though, because it's alive. While I'm chewing, it's still thinking, and probably panicking. Even vultures wait for their prey to die. Shouldn't I?

At the restaurant, the next course arrives. As far as I can tell, my onion soup contains no living onions. The main course is loaded with shrimp, all fully killed. I'm a bit on edge that my wine may conspire with the water to walk away, but my anxiety is reduced with a few more glasses of chardonnay. And a few more after that.

I see the waiter bring a seafood platter to another table and I wonder if it contains the same snails we met. I hope so. Why torture a fresh batch of sea creatures? Or maybe they're new recruits, and ours were released into the water, having completed their cameo role in my life. But what if they're withering in the garbage? Or what if the chef is eating the leftovers himself? "Marcel! Bring me more live creatures! SSSSLLLLIP!!"

I'm still queasy pondering it, but I find out I've actually gotten off easy. Chip mentions a local restaurant that serves live lobster. According to him, the lobster tries to crawl around the table while people pick at its innards. It almost makes the snails sound good.

All I know is I'm staying veggie for a while longer. Carrots don't freak out when you eat them.

Dan Tobin ate bacon this weekend and can be reached at