Sunday, May 15, 2011

`Whatever the Forest and Field Have to Offer'

A new word learned, another hole in my ignorance plugged: malacology. Not the study of evil but of the phylum Mollusca, including snails, slugs, octopi and squid. I found a slender volume, almost a pamphlet, Western Society of Malacologists Field Guide to the Slug (1994), written by David George Gordon and published by Sasquatch [!] Books of Seattle.

I have a soft spot, so to speak, for gastropods. Growing up in Ohio, I knew only small, dirt-colored species, creatures notable to an eight-year-old only for the copious slime they trailed and their miraculous ability to traverse the edge of a razor blade without dismembering themselves. At age twenty, in the Savoy region of France, I first saw their larger cousins, eight or ten inches long, the color of pumpkins, and not confined to the underside of rocks and logs. These giants crossed sidewalks and outdoor tables. That visit also included my first taste of escargot.

Last week on the playground, a group of girls announced, without revulsion, they had found a slug. He was modestly sized, about three inches, and in danger of desiccating, so I moved him from the pavement to the grass, much impressing the girls. One of them is a native of France, and unselfconsciously bilingual. I said, “Ah, escargot! Très bien!” She laughed, but I still don’t know if French distinguishes snails from slugs.

“Malacology” was coined in English in the nineteenth century, from the Greek malakos, “soft,” by way of Latin and French. “Slug,” in the sense of a “shell-less land snail,” dates from the early eighteenth century. Oddly, the word first shows up in English in the early fourteen-hundreds, and refers to a lazy person. The gastropod took its name from a familiar human type. Of course, a slug can also be a bullet, a counterfeit coin, a punch in the face or a shot of liquor, and there are slugfests, sluggers, slugabeds and Nancy’s friend Sluggo.

In his monograph, Gordon says Washington is an “evolutionary hotbed for gastropods,” including twenty-three species of slugs. In a chapter titled “The Slug in Brief,” he reproduces the slug menu:

“Whatever the forest and field have to offer: fungi, lichens, green plants, worms, centipedes, certain insects, animal feces [is there any other sort?], carrion, other slugs.”

In the chapter on slug anatomy, we learn its mouth and anus are arranged with disturbing proximity, and that it can “attain top speeds of 0.025 mile per hour.” Gordon includes no recipes in his little book, but for that we can turn to A.J. Liebling in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris:

“We ordered a couple of dozen escargots en pots de chambre to begin with. These are snails baked and served, for the clients convenience, in individual earthenware crocks, instead of being forced back into shells. The snail, of course, has to be taken out of his shell to be prepared for cooking. The shell he is forced back into may not be his own. There is thus not even a sentimental justification for his reincarceration. The frankness of the service en pot does not improve the preparation of the snail, nor does it detract from it, but it does facilitate and accelerate his consumption. (The notion that the shell proves the snail’s authenticity, like the head left on the woodcock, is invalid, as even a suburban housewife knows nowadays; you can buy a tin of snail shells in a supermarket and fill them with a mixture of nutted cream cheese and chopped olives.)”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

Here is another point of view--the last lines of a poem by Janet Lewis about the local snails of Palo Alto and Los Altos: "Snail Garden."

. . . What do they hear? The air above them
Is full of the sharp cries of birds.
Do they see? The lily bud,
Three feet above the soil on its leafy stalk,
Is known to them at midnight
As if it were a lighthouse. Before sunrise
They have gnawed it half in two.
Toothless mouths, blind mouths
Have turned the leaf of the hollyhock to lace,
Neatly, just below the blossom.

The classic shell, cunningly arched, and strong
Against the hazards of the grassy world
Is nothing before the power of my intention.
The larks, also, have had their fun,
Crashing that coiled shell on stone,
Guiltless in their freedom.

But I have taken sides in the universe.
I have killed the snail that lay on the morning leaf,
Not grudging greatly the nourishment it took
Out of my abundance,
Chard, periwinkle, capucine,
Occasional lily bud,
But I have begun my day with death,
Death given, death to be received.
I have stepped into the dance;
I have greeted at daybreak
That necessary angel, that other.

Poems Old and New, 1918-1978