GUERNEVILLE, Calif. — Much of the drama surrounding the 8th annual Celebration of the Noble Banana Slug centered not on who would win the slug sprint or slug bake-off, but whether slugs' rights protesters would appear again.
But the only complaints at the festival Sunday concerned the salty flavor of such delicacies as Strawberry Almond Slug Shortcake.
Luckily, the eight gastropod-tasters were allowed to sip a vodka martini (with a twist of slug).
The Slug Fest, as it's known for short, is sponsored by a local newspaper, The Paper, in this town, which is situated along the Russian River, about 60 miles northwest of San Francisco. It originated, publisher Elizabeth Poole said, because "we wanted to celebrate something native to this area."
And what dates are to Indio, artichokes are to Castroville and jumping frogs are to Angel's Camp, banana slugs, which grow up to six inches long, are to Guerneville.
"Nothing else grows under our Redwoods," Poole explained.
Protest Not Effective
The shell-less mollusks derive their name from their yellowish color (not their taste).
Last year, Alan Rivers, a local dentist, and three other residents picketed the Slug Fest with signs that said, "Animal Abuse for Human Amusement." Rivers pointed out that "the smaller animals are, the less people care about their rights." But he didn't attend this year, explaining, "I just felt last year's protest hadn't had any effect."
The Paper, taking no chances, had hidden the slugs for this year's festivities in its cellar, lest someone attempt to free them.
But the only unexpected visitor at the restaurant where the celebration was held was a woman registering Democratic voters.
About 200 spectators showed up to cheer the slug-sprinters and the slug-eaters.
Eric Richman, 11, manned a Rent-A-Slug booth (10 cents apiece, with an option to own, at no additional price), remembering to keep his hands covered with plastic bags.
"If you pick them up without a glove, the slime sticks to your hand," Eric explained. "It's harder to wash off than rubber cement. You have to use salt."
Spectator comments at the slug-sprints ranged from "How do you tell them apart?" to "Did anyone give them a urine test?"
The slugs' two race tracks resembled bulls eyes with a two-foot radius. The contestants were placed in the center, with the first one to crawl to the outer edge the winner.
The handlers employed several varying strategies.
Leslie Iannarelli, 5, tried to lure her slug, Spot, by dangling a piece of lettuce in front of it. But Sandy Hawes, 5, began pounding on the track with her fist to encourage her racer, Friend, who overtook Spot with a time of just over four minutes for the two-foot distance.
"Spot didn't like the pounding," Leslie said in tears.
Friend tired in the final, losing to 11-year-old Kim Geissinger's Louie, who raced across the two-foot track in just over four minutes.
The slug-racers survived the festival. Not so lucky were their brethren, who were incorporated into recipes for the bake-off.
The judges seemed relieved that such entries of previous years as slughetti, slug-kebob and up-slime-down-cake were missing. But slugs stuffed with sour cream proved a challenging substitute.
"I'm becoming a vegetarian immediately," announced one of the judges, Eeve Lewis, the Sonoma County registrar. Lewis likened the taste of slugs to mushrooms and said the bland flavor wasn't so bad. It was their slimy consistency she found alarming.
At one point, several spectators charged that another judge, Ann Magni, a Sebastopol city councilwoman, had hidden a slug.
"Eat it! Eat it!" the spectators chanted, and she did, reluctantly.
The winning entry: Szechuan Slug Rolls.
"Will you be back to judge next year?" Sonoma County Sheriff Dick Michaelsen was asked.
"I'd sooner go to jail," he groaned.