Escargot to go; Maryland's lone snail farmer is slowly but surely cornering the gastropod market, catering to the best restaurants around.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sooner or later every snail farmer has to confront the shocking sex life of his slippery gastropods.

"Snails are hermaphrodites," says Eddie Chupek, Maryland's only snail farmer and one of about five in the whole country.

Being hermaphrodites means, as any kid who's gone to an old-time county fair knows, they have both male and female parts.

"Essentially," Chupek explains, "[coming] out of the side of their heads they have something called a 'spicule,' which is a small white spike. Two snails will get together, next to each other, or head to head, and they exchange these spikes."

And this is not some passing fancy. Snails mate as they do everything else, very, very slowly. (A snail's pace, incidentally, has been calculated at .03 miles an hour.)

"They'll be connected by those spikes quite a while, six to eight hours. During that time they're impregnating each other. Once impregnated they crawl to a dirt pan or pot and dig a hole two inches deep and in that hole they'll lay a clump of eggs about the size of a ping pong ball."

That's maybe 100 eggs.

"In about two weeks," Chupek says, "the eggs will hatch, and you'll have an itty-bitty snail with a paper-thin shell."

And on his U.S. Snails farm they'll grow up to be Helix aspersa, Le Petit-Gris, "the little gray," the quintessential French escargot.

For snail lovers, the Petit-Gris evoke gourmet meals eaten in France and across the continent from Madrid to Athens. Not to mention memorable repasts at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, the Inn at Perry Cabin, St. Michaels, and the Milton Inn, in Sparks, all of which Chupek supplies.

But for less adventurous eaters, snails are garden pests that fall somewhere between sushi and grasshoppers in their appeal as food.

Chupek, whose U.S. Snails farm is in the middle of an Eastern Shore cornfield between Harmony and Preston, not far from Bethlehem, has made snail eaters out of most of his friends. But some won't touch them.

" 'Hell, no, there's no way I'm eating snails' -- there's always that group," Chupek says, ruefully. He chides them: "Look at an oyster. You're eating the hell out of oysters.

"Look at crabs. What they're eating and what these guys eat are very different."

No question about that. Crabs eat virtually anything that falls to the bottom of the bay. At Chupek's farm, snails basically eat an organic diet.

"We feed essentially as if they went in and attacked your garden," he says. "There are certain things we found they really like. I mean, they love carrots. They love collard greens. They love cabbage and apple slices."

These Petit-Gris have some fastidious eating habits, too.

"They eat apple slices all the way down to where what's left in the cage is a ring of the skin, eaten [away] perfectly.

"They'll eat a carrot hollow. They eat holes into it and eat the middle of it out. There'll be a perfect paper-thin skin."

And some chefs like them fed fresh basil as a kind of pre-seasoning, which he does.

U.S. Snails were on the menu when Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper celebrated their last wedding anniversary at the Inn at Little Washington.

"I don't know if he ate them or not," Chupek confesses.

The chef at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, one of Washington's inner-circle eating places since Abraham Lincoln dined there, called him up early one day: "'I've got a big gig going on tonight. I need 5 pounds of snails -- immediately!' 'I'm on my way,' I said." Later on at the beach he's flipping through TV channels and finds C-Span is live from the dinner of the China Relations Talks at the Willard. "I'm laughing with my friends: 'Look, my snails are famous! They're on TV.' "

He regularly sells his snails to 15 or 20 mostly upscale, primarily French, restaurants, some Italian, some "intercontinental" like the Willard, in the Washington and Baltimore area. He ships them to Philadelphia, New York and as far away as Chicago.

"I can't afford to eat anywhere that I sell them to," he says. "At the Inn at Little Washington I asked one time how much if my wife and I came up for dinner. The guy said we have the four-course meal for 98 bucks and the seven course meal is $157 or something like that.

"The Willard Room," he says, "they had snail dish that was like 40 bucks, as an appetizer. Kings come in, people that bring a whole entourage, they all stay at the Willard." But you don't have to be a monarch or a Washington insider to eat snails.

"Half the people you wouldn't expect, like the chicken farmer down the road: 'Oh, man, I love 'em. I had them at such and such a place.'

"More and more people are starting to identify them as a food," Chupek says. "The more people that eat them, the better my chances are."

There's plenty of room for expansion. The United States imported about $4.6 million worth of canned and frozen snails in 1995, the last year for which statistics were available, and exported about $55,000 worth of frozen snails.

Chupek has been selling snails about two years. It took him about a year to get his farm going, and he pretty much had to learn how to raise snails by trial and error. He seems like a capable guy, straightforward and athletic-looking in an Old Navy T-shirt, khaki shorts and running shoes.

He's 39, and he grew up in Denton, just up Route 16. He and his wife, Betsy, a school teacher from Bowie, were living in Greenbelt, on what Chupek refers to as "the Western Shore," when guns turned up in their kid's schoolyard. They have two boys, Michael, 16, and Hank, 9.

"I said: 'Pack your bags. We're out of here!' " So they moved back to the Eastern Shore into this old house on an old dirt road where corn rises like a stockade at the edge of the lawn.

"This was a dump," Chupek says. "We've been here for about 11 years. We just fixed it up and made it something decent."

Growing snails was pretty much Betsy's idea. She used to eat them when her mother took her out for special birthday dinners. She loves them.

They were watching a TV show about escargot when Betsy pipes up: "You know what? You ought to raise snails in our chicken house."

He was doing construction work and going to school at Salisbury State University, studying zoology, biology, "anything with --ology connected to it." He made up a spreadsheet on the computer, looking to see how many restaurants he'd have to supply to make a profit.

"The more I looked, the more I liked it, and I decided to do it."

He ran into a maze of stringent state and federal regulations. Snails are a potential agricultural pest. California spends millions trying to control them.

"We did everything they wanted and then some," he says. "Since then the state has been nothing but helpful. They've been really super." He virtually had to seal off his building.

"Baby snails are sticky little things, and you don't see them," he says. "The state told me right from the git-go, 'If anything escapes from here, you're done.' "

He's wrapped every door and window with copper, which in fact, has quite a nice decorative effect, like some ancient wine cellar.

"Snails are repelled by copper," he says. "They don't like copper." In California, fruit growers wrap copper sheets around their trees to keep snails from fruit and leaves. Some growers harvest snails stalled below the copper to sell.

"All of our breeders we've got are bred from snails from California," he says. "They're the exact same snails they eat in France. Essentially [they were] imported from France and escaped. Before regulations."

At U.S. Snails, everything is kept scrupulously clean, even sterile. Waste water goes through a 20-micron filter and then into barrel of bleach. They scrub down the kitchen and the water tubs and sorting tray with bleach.

His first health inspector told him: "It's amazing what you Eastern Shore boys can do with an old chicken house."

He prepares his Petit-Gris for sale by blanching them for about three minutes in boiling water splashed with lemon juice.

When he sells them they're considered "fully cooked" animals because they've reached the temperatures required to kill all the bacteria.

"You can take them out of our package and eat them," he says. "But they're cooked as little as possible to make them edible so that the chef can then saute them or do whatever his particular preference is."

Chupek's personal favorite is a snail and wild mushroom soup prepared by Mark Salter, the chef at the Inn at Perry Cabin who bought the first batch of U.S. Snails.

His manager said they would never sell. Salter's soups sold out.

"This kind of place has educated eaters," he says.

And U.S. Snails was happy to teach the first course.

Pub Date: 9/03/99

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