At a Snail's Place

Last Christmas, while Americans feasted on turkey and roast beef, the French celebrated the season by devouring approximately 22 tons of snails. During the Christmas and New Year's holidays alone, the Parisians eat 200 tons of snails; over the course of the year, they eat over 25,000 tons of snails.

Escargot weigh in at about 100 dressed snails per pound. You do the math.
It is not surprising, then, that the French have just about eaten their way through their snail supply. The Burgundian snail, Helix pomatia, the preferred snail of gourmets, is now endangered. The season for gathering wild snails is strictly limited and the only escargots widely available are the pressure-cooked bits and pieces that come in cans. The question is, why don't the French cultivate their main course, the way Americans do turkeys and cattle?

It's because the only man in the world with the know-how lives in Dallas, that's why. So far, the French have failed at growing their favorite food commercially.

Richard W. Fullington looks like a well-to-do West Texas rancher in his polished cowboy boots, white turtleneck, and brown hound's-tooth coat. Only a small, gold, snail-shaped lapel pin clues you in to the fact that his long-horned herds are snails, not cattle. For several decades, Dr. Fullington has been the United States' foremost malacologist, or snail expert. Now out of his museum job and intrigued by the French snail crisis--"surrounded by opportunity," as he puts it--he's merged science and gastronomy and founded Escargot International, an Addison-based enterprise whose accepted mission is "to improve the quality of escargot worldwide."

"The truth is," says Dr. Fullington, "we're ranching." Like cattle, the snails are cut into herds, tracked by age, and fattened in feed lots before slaughtering. Right now, the "ranch" is a top-secret facility near Denton. Raising the billions of snails a year Fullington hopes and believes he'll need to fill demand will require a 200,000-square-foot snail ranch--quite a spread.

Fullington says Escargot International has reached a plateau. Given its limited resources and personnel--which, right now, consists of Fullington, a partner, and Fullington's wife, Lisa--the company needs investors before it can grow. For several months it has had to scramble just to keep up with orders generated by the 1995 Texas Restaurant Food Exposition, where hundreds of chefs and restaurateurs first tasted the Texas snails.

Richard Fullington did a stint in the Navy before attending Southern Methodist University, where he started out majoring in art and journalism. He settled on biology after being inspired in his sophomore year by an invertebrate course taught by Dr. Elmer Cheatum, then the leading malacologist in the U.S.

"Cheatum took a shine to me," recalls Fullington, "and snails are as interesting as any other organism; plus, all you gotta do is walk out in your backyard, and you find a new species of snail."

Following in Cheatum's trail, Fullington earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at SMU. Perhaps even then he was inching toward a combination of science and gastronomy: He recalls taking an elective on the utilization of the cockroach as a food source. Cheatum and Fullington continued to collaborate (researching all invertebrates, not just snails) after Fullington began working at the Dallas Museum of Natural History and on his doctorate at the University of North Texas.

"People look on invertebrates as 'yucky'," says Fullington. "I found 11 new species of land and water snails just in Texas. They're not warm and fuzzy like birds and they're not romantic like dinosaurs, but, discounting humans, three out of five organisms you're likely to see in a day are invertebrates. The vast majority of organisms is invertebrate. Insects are the most successful; mollusks are second. There are 100,000 species of described mollusks. They're very weak animals individually--97 percent water--but they've been around 200 million years."

Though the snail is a living relic of the Pleistocene era at the end of the last ice age, when there were 100 inches of rain annually in Texas, "there aren't many malacologists," says Fullington. "You know, seven or eight of us get in a closet and have our national convention, and there's really only one other specialist in land snails, up in Michigan. The field's wide open, but science is just as faddy as anything else." And malacology is hardly hip, although anyone who listens to Fullington for a while is going to end up more interested in snails than ever expected.

Fullington is full of snail tales. For instance, did you know that the octopus and the squid, cousins of the snail, have the most highly developed eyes of all the invertebrate animals? Structurally, they're almost exactly like human eyes.

At one time, when scientists were first trying to figure out the human line of descent, it was suggested that we were descended from the snail family. It turns out we probably evolved from the starfish.

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Mary Brown Malouf