Snails, the D’Amelio Video and Reframing The Diner-Chef Relationship

So, apparently, there’s a 19 year-old TikTok star named Dixie D’Amelio, who doesn’t care for snails, and neither does her sister.  This story (if you can call it that), was brought to my attention by my wife this morning, having recently gone viral.  Not having seen the video at that point, I’d only gotten the bullet points from my better half: a young woman tried a bite of something, and rather than the taste of it, the mere fact that it had snails in it caused one person to immediately request something else (chicken nuggets) instead, and another to dramatically vomit.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I’m not here to debate, defend or accuse anyone in this video of anything, because the details are vague, the intention/reaction is debatable, and I don’t give a shit about any of it.  I don’t know if you’re aware of the story at all, but you certainly don’t need to be.  Neither girl, nor their family, have any actual effect on the lives of any of her way-too-many-millions of followers, and there’s nothing remarkable or unique about teenagers reacting dramatically to something.  “Then Glenn,” you might ask, “why the hell are you bringing it up?”

Well, this sparked a very nuanced conversation between my wife and I on our morning walk.  Not about two teenagers being bratty teenagers, but instead, about what obligations or disclosures are inherently expected in the relationship between the person preparing food (the chef), and the person(s) eating it (the diners/guests).

When it comes to “exotic” foods, what is or isn’t okay for a chef to prepare?  What reaction can a diner reasonably have to a certain food or dish?  At the end of the day, who is responsible for making sure everyone is on the same page?  Let’s begin with that last question…

In short, both parties are responsible.

In almost every respectable sit-down restaurant in America, when your server first arrives at your table, before he/she even asks if anyone would like something to drink, other than water, they ask, “Before we get started, does anyone have any allergies or dietary restrictions?” (or some version thereof).  This is basically when the guest gets to list things that they won’t eat, for one reason or another: religion, diet, or disdain. You don’t even have to give a reason if you don’t want to.  Regardless of motivation, it’s the server’s obligation to communicate your answer to the kitchen, and it’s the kitchen’s obligation to respect it.

That being said, when choosing to dine at a given restaurant, you, as the guest, are implicitly communicating to the chef, that you are there to eat something that he/she has creatively curated for your enjoyment, and you trust them to do as much.  Let me be clear about another thing: it’s always possible that the chef or a cook may cook a dish poorly and it tastes like shit, but that’s not the focus of this discussion.  This is to discuss the ingredients a chef chooses to use.

When you look at a menu, all the prominent elements of a dish should be listed.  Basically, nothing that isn’t listed will be on that plate in an amount that would deter a reasonable person who wasn’t a fan of that ingredient.  In addition to the understanding that the chef/cooks won’t feed you anything unsafe to eat, that is the tacit contract between the chef and the guest. That is the trust.

Moving forward, I will assume we can accept (and hopefully agree upon) what we’ve just established.  Let’s then look at the first question I posed above, regarding what the chef can, in good faith, serve a guest, starting with the thing that sparked all of this: snails.

The way the common American diner views snails is a perfect example of a phenomenon very present in American culture (and very possibly in most others as well), where a person will demonstrably reject the idea of eating something, without ever having tasted it.  Just so we can all be reasonable about this, I’m talking about things that people do eat.  I’m not here to debate someone thumbing their nose at the idea of eating hog shit or drinking battery acid before they’ve tried it.  I’m talking about things that are actually consumed by people, on purpose.

A while back, I wrote a post on why you should eat everything which should probably have been entitled, “Try anything”.  The main point I made therein, was my belief that a person who is a picky eater, has probably never tried their favorite food.  In a lot of cases, this is because people are naturally reluctant of things that are unfamiliar.  Sampling a fruit, cheese, vegetable, or meat that a particular palate has never experienced can be a daunting suggestion to some people (or so it has been explained to me), and that sucks for them.  But I don’t think more than 10% of the population actually falls into that classification of picky eaters, and that’s not exactly what I’m talking about.

Secondly, the answer to the question of what a chef can responsibly serve a guest is short and simple: anything the guest didn’t say they wouldn’t eat, but that is in fact something that is eaten by people.  It’s all in play.

Now, we’ll address the last of the three questions from earlier, regarding what reaction a diner can reasonably have, and it will be important to embrace that qualification (reasonably).

Snails are not alone as a delicacy that many will never willfully try.  The thought of eating parts of certain animals like the liver, brain, tongue or heart will make many a person’s stomach turn.  Likewise, the thought of eating alligator, kangaroo, rattlesnake, horse, or any animal not typically raised as livestock can similarly be thought of as disgusting.  But the “why?” is what I’m interested in.

I chalk it up to me being a professional cook, but I realize that the fact that I view everything as potential food is unusual.  I’d argue it shouldn’t be, because everything on earth is eventually food for something else.  Couple that with my theory about not having tried your favorite food yet, and it shouldn’t be surprising that in principal, I want to at least try anything I’ve never tasted.

Now, this is where I break from myself a bit.  I am human, and I have certain psychological obstructions that will keep me from eating certain things.  Everyone does, and even with the extremely liberal philosophy I have on this matter, I think everyone is entitled to at least a few things that they just won’t eat.  Personally, I don’t care how great you tell me grasshoppers or citrus ants are, I have no desire to eat any kind of insect.  Furthermore, you can tell me all about a delicious preparation for “rocky mountain oysters” (aka: sheep testicles), but I refuse to consume sexual reproductive organs.  For this reason, you could call me a hypocrite, and I don’t think I’d have a very good defense of that.  But I still believe my food-related aversions are far more reasonable than (for example) snails.

Let me be perfectly clear, and state for the record that my wife is very open to trying things I encourage her to. When discussing these things with my wife this morning, she revealed that, while she’s tried them, and isn’t ruling out eating them again in the future, she’s “cooling on snails”.  When I asked what about them made them different from, let’s say lobster or eel (two things she willingly eats that are fundamentally similar to snails), she couldn’t put her finger on why; just that they were slimy and kinda weird-looking.  These things are clearly enough to turn her brain off of the idea of putting a snail in her mouth.  I’m sure it’s also the same thing that turns people off of eating brain, and also, the same core reason that deters many from eating rabbit.  I know, you’re thinking “Glenn, people don’t like eating rabbit because they’re slimy, it’s because bunnies are super cute!”.  Yes, I know (and they are!), but the core reason a given person doesn’t want to eat brain or rabbit is because they are envisioning those things, before they’ve been turned into food.

Brain and rabbit don’t look like their original states when they’re served to you on a plate.  But, if you have it in your mind that that’s what you’re eating as you put it into your mouth, I understand it could be unappetizing.  The way to get over this (if you’d like to be able to eat more exotic foods), is to try and just think of whatever you’re eating, as food – nothing more, and nothing less.  Take a bite.  Chew.  Taste.  Feel it in your mouth.  Go through the inner protocol you execute every time you eat food, and develop your opinion of it.  Decide if you like, or don’t like that food.  Only then, should you allow yourself to think of how you may have known it before.  Furthermore, only then are you entitled to have an opinion on it as food.  It’s very possible that you won’t care for the texture of brain, or the aftertaste of rabbit.  But only once you’ve tried those things and developed your own opinion will know that you don’t care for those things, and the actual reasons why.

When considering the things we tend to cringe at eating, it’s important to think about why we don’t cringe at eating others.  Eating beef, for example doesn’t disgust most people in our culture, but the idea of eating horse is thought only appropriate for dogs.  But objectively that’s silly: a cow and a horse are not that dissimilar.  The difference is (I think) that you were likely eating beef, long before you learned what a cow was, saw one for yourself, and learned that beef comes from a dead “one of those”.  On the other hand, we don’t raise horses as livestock, so it’s likely you’ve never thought about eating it.

There are two things at play here.  Firstly is the power of labeling: “cow” is never on a menu, because once a cow has been slaughtered and butchered, we refer to it as beef.  Similarly, “pig” is never advertised in supermarkets, yet pork is frequently on sale.  And most pertinently, “snails” are rarely listed on a menu, but escargot (which is snails) is considered a staple of French haute cuisine.

Yes, this phenomenon is most common with animals, but not exclusive to them: “cornmeal” is never on a menu, but polenta is.  We use language to reframe a thing that has undergone so much change from what it once was, that we assign such a thing a new designation.

The second phenomenon in play encompasses the first, but is more broadly about cognitive framing.  If you have eaten something, and developed your conscious opinion of that food, before you understand what form it takes before becoming food, then you don’t have a problem with it – or you can at least reshape your stance on the matter once you learn about what your food used to be.  It becomes a lot different when you’re asked to go the other direction, and cognitively reshape your impression of something as it is, into something that goes on your plate and into your mouth.

We as humans formulate the way we see a particular thing, usually based (at least in part) on its context.  You’re used to thinking of a liver as a firm, slimy organ that is instrumental in keeping its host alive.  That doesn’t seem as appetizing as thinking of it seared, and served on top of a steak in the form of foie gras.  So, it’s understandable for a person who’s never had foie gras to recoil when they find out it’s liver, until you employ the mechanism I suggested earlier, of just recontextualizing it as food.  

I’ve gone on long enough with this, so to wrap it all up: I’m willing to forgive a sheltered teenager for not having developed the emotional maturity and cognitive awareness required to dissociate the shelled snail she usually sees in a fish tank or on a sidewalk, from the food on her plate.  But when it comes to adults, I ask that you do your best to recognize the difference between what something was, and what a chef has done to it to make it the thing you’re meant to eat.  Very few things are naturally food, but that’s what cooking does: it turns those things into food.  Remember that in every restaurant kitchen, there’s someone who has studied and trained to become an expert at doing exactly that.  I can’t tell you what to do, but what I think you should do as a diner is be an adult, trust that chef, and eat a fucking snail. 

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