By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Out in West Texas," Fullington says, "there's a snail called the humboldtiana which is only found in canyons and on mountaintops, only in Texas, only in the U.S. These snails have a little sac in their bodies filled with love darts; they stick darts in each other to mate. It's closely related to Helix aspersa. Cheatum named one species Humboldtiana Fullington after me."
After 25 years at the Dallas Museum of Natural History publishing works like Recent and Fossil Freshwater Gastropod Fauna of Texas, Fullington was forced by a staff overhaul to take early retirement. What's an unemployed malacologist to do?
For one thing, Fullington does some consulting for paleontologists and archaeologists, who send Fullington the mollusks they've sifted from every level of their earth samples. Because mollusks are extremely climate- and habitat-specific, Fullington can produce a time column, centimeter by centimeter, describing climate changes and mollusk population densities, commenting on the paleoclimate, and giving a paleoecological interpretation.
Fullington decided, though, to mainly focus on one snail--the one he puts on your plate, where it's called escargot, no matter what kind of snail it really is. "The whole idea of raising escargots in the U.S. is not new. After all, it's a $75-[million]-to-$85-million-a-year market. That makes it real interesting and lots of people approached me about this over the years."
It looks easy, too, says Fullington. "Snails are hermaphroditic, so every one is a breeder." That would appeal to any rancher, but it's trickier than it appears.
Fullington is concentrating his snail-raising efforts on a European coastal snail called Helix aspersa, known in France as petit-gris, or "little gray." It's the smallest of the 116 edible snails, and, some say, the tastiest. First brought into this country by a snail-hungry French settler in 1854, according to Fullington, the immigrant quickly made itself at home.
"California is overrun by them and I've collected them all over. The first Texas Helix aspersa was found near Waco in the '30s. They're thicker than fleas in East Dallas and the Park Cities, where there's lots of trees and where people keep their automatic sprinklers set to water their St. Augustine. Snails like that."
It seems that the snail is, generally, highly successful, but that individual snails are extremely delicate. "You have to pamper them," says Dr. Fullington. "Nature doesn't have to." Nature's plan, that snails reproduce so quickly it doesn't matter whether a lot of them perish, is not a good business plan. Still, according to Fullington, "lots of people are trying to raise snails now because it looks like quick money."
Not surprisingly, these seemingly profitable, prolific creatures have spawned a number of snail-raising schemes and scams.
About 10 years ago, tempted no doubt by the potentially immense source of supply, a Michigan company was touting snail eggs, calling them "the next caviar." I tasted some. The pearly globes in a jellied mess were bigger than beluga and smaller than salmon roe, and had a distinctly earthy taste which made the comparison with caviar unfortunate.
Closer to home, and more recently, an ingenious entrepreneur in Houston sold snail-breeding starter kits. He charged $3 apiece for "breeder" snails, and signed contracts with his investors guaranteeing he would buy back, for his snail cannery, all the snails that were raised in the first year. But there was no snail cannery.
Fullington may have spent most of his life inside a museum, but he knows he's got the inside track in the snail business: "Without my knowledge and experience, no one's going to raise snails successfully."
He spent six months working out systems for the snail ranch. He gave a milling company a breakdown of the nutritional requirements of snails so that the company could produce a dry feed, sort of a "Snail Chow," which is dampened slightly to suit the snails' taste. (Snails have a strong affinity for decaying vegetation--the term is "detritus feeders.")
"We had some criticism from connoisseurs in the early days that our snails didn't taste 'earthy' enough," says Fullington. Snails, like chickens, have crops wherein, aided by the sand they eat, they masticate all the cellulose they ingest. "Snails only need dirt for two things," Fullington says. "They lay their eggs in it and they absorb a certain amount of calcium for their shells." Fullington provides soil for egg-laying twice a year and puts calcium carbonate in the snails' food.
Snails also absorb the flavor of any food they consume, so Fullington adds basil and thyme to some food mixes and Italian seasoning to others. He jokes about eventually producing flavored snails to order. "What about jalapeno-seasoned snails?" he says.
Unfortunately, like its cousin the oyster, the snail also absorbs heavy metals, toxins, and stores them without being affected by them. Snails must therefore be starved for a few days before they can be eaten. Fullington raises his snails in a soil-free environment which cuts down on the time it takes to purge them.
Fullington has researched his competition, too.
He has not been to the only snail-ranch wannabe, in California, an apparent competitor called Escargormet which is based on collecting snails, not raising them.