GLYNDON, Md. — For J. T. St. Bell, switching jobs nine months ago meant trading a dozen racehorses for 20,000 gastropod mollusks.
"I always said I'd do things until I didn't enjoy them anymore," said the fledgling entrepreneur, who explains that after 10 years in the horse-breeding business, "I had my fill of arrogant horse buyers." Besides, she adds, the transition from "slow horses to slow snails seems logical."
So these days, instead of raising, training and selling Arabians and thoroughbreds, she's displaying what she likes to call her "road show," a small plastic container holding four surprisingly lively petit gris snails, considered by gourmands to be among the best eating.
The rest of her slimy herd, just a few weeks away from market size, lies in several hundred deep plastic buckets, locked behind the doors of a two-story, barn-like structure that she has leased on a sprawling mushroom farm.
East Coast Escargot is what St. Bell calls her company, and it is the East Coast market that she intends to tap first, by offering both fresh and canned snails that she feels are superior to the imported variety more frequently encountered by consumers.
Hers is the first such business to be permitted by the state agriculture department to operate in Maryland, where snails are considered a serious plant pest, and one of apparently only two state-licensed commercial snail ranches in the United States. (The other is the 3-year-old Enfant Riant in Petaluma, Calif., which sells 20,000 to 25,000 dozen snails per month.)
Waiting List Includes French
Though St. Bell has yet to sell a single mollusk, her waiting list of potential clients includes a dozen French purveyors. "Can you imagine the French looking to America for a source for one of their prime treats?" she asked, laughing. (In fact, the French consume an estimated 30,000 tons of snails annually, according to the Center for Foreign Trade in Paris, and import what they can't produce themselves from Greece, Turkey, Indonesia and elsewhere.)
Belying St. Bell's market research and the success of her West Coast counterpart, Americans haven't demonstrated much affection for the stuff. A recent Gallup survey of unusual foods ranked snails just behind brains as the food consumers most detested, with 39% of those polled indicating that they would never want to try escargot .
That leaves 61% who might try snails, said a confident St. Bell. As with similar gourmet items, "this is a market already in place."
The businesswoman expects her snails, packed in spring water in 7 1/2-ounce cans, to sell for $7 to $9 a can retail. (At Sutton Place Gourmet in Washington, which sells the California product, a 7 1/2-ounce can costs $7.99; at Giant supermarket a 4 1/2-ounce tin of French snails costs $3.79; Safeway sells a 7-ounce can of French snails for $2.99.)
If the decision to abandon horses in favor of snails was an easy one, the career change has been riddled with obstacles. For one thing, most of the available information on snails details techniques for eradicating, as opposed to nurturing, the animal.
And most of the pertinent scientific literature is printed either in French or Italian, adds St. Bell, who had volumes of journals translated into English.
Moreover, officials at the Maryland Department of Agriculture first had to be convinced of the soundness of her proposal. "Generally, we are extremely reluctant to get involved in these situations," said Bill Gimpel, chief of the department's plant-protection section and one of two supervisors working with St. Bell.
While inquiries have been relatively few in number, Gimpel acknowledges, the department denies several requests from prospective snail farmers each year. St. Bell was granted a permit only after she invested in a facility that is virtually escape-proof, on a site that is also vegetation-free. (The concrete structure is surrounded by asphalt.)
"They were tough," said the entrepreneur of her supervisors. To satisfy the inspectors' demands, St. Bell watches over her operation like a guard at Ft. Knox.
Only those employees directly responsible for the daily cleaning, feeding and watering are permitted into the snail houses, and then only after they don protective overalls with banded pants legs, to prevent the accidental transfer of any snails to the outside. Further, entrances and windows are bordered with copper flashing, which repels snails and keeps them contained.
Such caution on the part of the state agricultural officials is not without good reason. About three years ago a shipment of snail-contaminated nursery stock brought into Laurel, Md., from California resulted in the partial quarantine of a local commercial nursery.
While the infestation is now under control, the state agriculture department "has yet to declare the area free of snails," according to Gimpel.