Looking in the mirror, I see the ten year old girl that I was. Stringy blond strands fighting straw like underbrush, brown, bronze and wet. A large childish smile parked on dark laughing eyes, I am rain, I am happiness. Can't wait to gross out my friends with my old recipes.
As I pull weeds in the garden, beset with a week of strong storms, I find the American Midwest akin to my temperate humid Southwestern France. I am that child again, standing in the narrow plot behind the house in Angoulême. Feet ensconced in rubber galoshes, I track mud in the paths between vegetables and flowers. It is getting dark and the chill of relentless rain penetrates perception to the bone.
I have set the upturned clay pots amid the thick vegetation and will return after supper to find what the traps have collected. I shake my red raincoat before hanging it on its hall hook, untie my rain cap, slip the overshoes off, and check for moisture on my felt house slippers before stepping on the bees-waxed floor. The strict protocol routine brings comfort in its predictability.
Dinner served, dishes done, I swiftly grab the one rectangular flashlight from the kitchen cupboard, there are some distant rumblings in the sky to the west. I know the sound of nature, little frogs pip in the lilacs, birds stir and shake feathers in the fat peach tree.Facing south the first cloche hides amid Swiss chards, I lift it carefully as if snails could or would run away; the light reveals a good dozen large snails, I pluck them from the safety of their newfound shelter. Guilty, yet hungry for more, checking under dripping plants, I skip from pot to pot, raise them from the rocks I have set them on, drop snails into my wire basket, their new cage. Tremble and tumble, I moan and bite my lip at every find.
By the time I have walked the entire distance to the last one on the metal shavings pathways, the basket is heavy with the globes of brown striped common snails. A local delicacy. I have done my pesticidal duty, these won't eat our prized endives anymore. I swing the basket of live prey and apologize to them for imprisoning them in this ancient wire structure. I close the lid on them and on my conscience in one swift gesture, click! And there I go trotting to the kitchen, proud of my bounty.
Ah, not too bad says father lifting his demi-tasse cup of dark chicory that smells of Armagnac. Now the spiraling helixes will go on a fast till all fecal detritus is expelled from their systems. Down the basement, I set the tall tower on a newspaper in the ambient darkness for them to become lean and hungry. For us to satisfy a gustatory taste for rare delicacies. I bow my head in hesitant apology.
A week later I bring the terrestrial shells up to the slaughterhouse that will be the kitchen table. I check for dead ones by poking them tenderly with the point of my knife. My Pradel knife finds only two lame victims of this practice to return to the compost pile. The rest are washed in salt water, left to salivate and froth for an hour. Then I must drop them in boiling water, pull the basket up in two minutes and proceed to extract them from the shells. Wash them carefully, as the cooked creatures will be served in these.
Meanwhile I peel garlic, two entire cloves, chop parsley, two whole handfuls, heat olive oil in the sauce pan, throw the minced garlic in, stir till brown, sprinkle a handful of flour over it and pour white wine in it till the sauce thickens—not too thick- not too thin, not a single lump...now add the parsley, just in time to present at table. Perch platter on tile, add the snails and gently enrobe them with the sauce, grind pepper and sea salt over it. Cover and wait.
The plate full of scallions and fresh radishes, celery blades and carrot wedges with three salt wells full of gray Atlantic sea salt is empty, the hors-d'oeuvres plate removed, the shellfish forks installed, I majestically lift the lid off the terrine and exclaim “bon appètit!” I serve father first, line up the thin two pronged wood handled fork perpendicular with the small knife. With great care, I raise the sauce ladle full of the gourmet entree; I am not breathing, nor looking at anything but the steam rising from the centerpiece. The aroma intense in the small kitchen, the sun rays at right angles through sheer curtains, mother sits motionless on her woven reed chair. Hands on apron, I neither budge, nor blink. The suspense unbearable. The tiny fork travels slowly to his lips, I see the dark stubble of evening beard on his chin, I spy the teeth which will tell of the effort I have made.
Now I serve mother, then sit myself, no word, she takes a second bite, kicks my leg under the table. She pushes a flour lump on the side of her plate, slides her tongue on her teeth as if something distasteful had bothered her sensibilities, I dare not take a taste as yet. Just as I inhale, “ ça va, pas mal! Un peu trop salé” ( Ok, not too bad; slightly too salty) father tilts his head in cockeyed approval. I hold a runaway smile under tight lip. Mother silently keeps hunting for lumps with croutons impaled to fork. I plunge into the rare dish and savor each rubbery morsel closing my eyes at every bite, separating the flavors on my palate, grainy garlic, pungent parsley, gray spirals of smooth protein, and the semi-sweetness of the slowly simmered wine lingers on the memory.