Lunch at Ralph Tucker’s house in Fresno can turn into a moveable feast with a chaser—the main course moves, slithering out of the sink, and Tucker chases it, plucking his quarry off the kitchen curtains. Since Tucker’s idea of a mouth-watering sight is a handful of his homegrown snails sizzling in a sauté pan, the chase is usually a short one.
Tucker, 70, thinks that snails suffer from bad PR in America. The California brown garden snail that plumps so temptingly in his pan is normally regarded as a pest. Tucker founded the Snail Club of America three years ago with the hope that people would come out of their shells and learn to appreciate snails for what they are. “They’re the best food available,” he says. “They have no fat and no cholesterol. There are 64 calories in three ounces of snail meat—that’s nine snails.”
Tucker, a widower, coordinates the activities of his 800-member club and puts out a newsletter for members, called the Artichoke Leaf (snails’ favorite chow). More interested in encouraging others to grow their own than in becoming a snail czar himself, Tucker has sold his own snails to club members for start-up herds and lectures to civic groups about snailophilia. In his spare time he dreams up new ways to serve his favorite creatures, such as wrapping them in prosciutto, simmering them in soups, folding them into enchiladas or perching smoked snails on cucumber.
Tucker’s love for this grand old gastropod got off to a slow start. He was on vacation in Hawaii in 1982 when he ordered snails for the first time. He was appalled at the cost—$12 for an appetizer—as well as the taste. He thought he could do better. Making tracks back to Fresno, heretofore famed (and satirized on TV) as the raisin capital of the world, Tucker, a retiree, found a raisin d’être of his own—raising a better snail for fun and, someday, profit.
Tucker quickly learned that there was very little literature on how to raise snails, although there was plenty on how to eradicate them. So he set about the task his way, putting as many snails as he could round up in his garden into a barrel. When the herd outgrew the barrel, Tucker set up a 25-by 35-foot “oasis” in his garden.
After a sluggish start, the wooden oasis now houses from a few hundred to 15,000 snails (Tucker chauvinistically refuses to call them by their French name, escargots). Feeding them old lettuce and artichoke leaves, he then serenades them with a radio tuned to an easy-listening station. “I can feel them moving, kind of like they’re dancing,” he says. Tucker says the snails really love Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called To Say I Love You.
It makes sense that Tucker would think music improves his snails’ mental health. His first job was as a mental health administrator in a Modesto hospital, and his second wife was a music therapist. In 1959, after his first wife died, Tucker says he switched careers and hosted a regionally syndicated TV show, which focused on golf and bowling. He also hosted A Sentimental Journey, a radio show that featured the music of the World War II era. He gave up broadcasting because, he says, “I was gone three or four months at a time. Chris [his second wife] said she hoped I’d stay home and do something else.” A year after he quit TV, Ralph and Chris had a baby daughter. “That’s what I got for staying home,” he says with a laugh. Tucker retired from his third career—selling insurance—in 1978. Between sales and snails, he says, “I was just taking it easy.”
Tucker thinks the snail business has tremendous potential—he claims the U.S. imports $300 million of the mini-mollusks every year. The supply of snails in France is depleted, and many of the snails from Taiwan and Formosa are actually cut-up bits and pieces of not-so-tasty giant African snails. Tucker hopes to transform this fabled snob delicacy into an affordable Everyman’s appetizer. “I’m strictly against people with money having all the good things,” he says. He spears a fat one from the pan, pops it in his mouth and chews happily.