Snails at midnight
Let us praise the existential comforts of escargot at the Tornado. (Illustration by Rachal Duggan.)
Picture this: It's about 12 a.m. on a Friday night (or Saturday morning if you want to be that guy). It's been a long night of debauchery downtown. Two dollar beers and $1 mystery shots fill your stomach, but you're not quite ready to go home.
You make your way past the shining beacon that is Wisconsin's Capitol building and find yourself at Tornado Room. You sit at the dimly lit bar, let the smooth jazz music fill your being, and order a glass of wine and a big buttery plate of snails.
For me, this is as good as it gets.
I can vividly recall my first Tornado Room escargot experience, because it happened on the night after the 2016 presidential election. During my senior year at UW-Madison, my fanciest friend invited me to seek refuge with him from the deluge of headlines, push notifications and College Democrats and Republicans that were suddenly everywhere.
The Tornado, on that night, was its own world. The soft glowing lights let me see just enough of the people and things around to know what's happening, but not enough to let them intrude on my night. The slow jazz was a welcome change of pace from the usual bass and fast beats that blare from nearby bars. The small and intimate booths were the perfect place to sink into myself and my thoughts. I hunkered down, stared out at the drifting snow, and envisioned myself in a far-away land with no worries, no plans and no responsibilities.
I had frequented Tornado Room and ordered from its late-night menu countless times before election night, but never ventured into escargot territory (I'm usually a steak sandwich or French onion soup kind of girl). When my friend first suggested we order the garlic globs of goodness, I was skeptical but, then again, nothing truly felt real in that moment. I took a (large) sip of my Riesling, said "why the h*ck not?" and the rest was history.
When the snails arrived, I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. The only image of escargot in my head was that of a rich woman somewhere in France, sippings on her wine and casually, having a snail snack. There's no getting around it—escargot is an extravagant dish and not often accessible to those who don't reside in the upper echelons of the highest income bracket. But that's part of what makes Tornado's snails so great and so amazing: Like most dishes on the late-night menu, they come at a price that even an undergrad could afford. And while the price never made me question the quality of the dish, I still have no idea what I was about to get. Would they have shells? Would they be alive? Would they look deep into my soul with their tiny snail eyes and convince me to become a vegetarian? Yes, they did come in shells, no, they weren't alive, and no, I didn't suddenly stop eating meat.
The snails came beautifully broiled and topped with bread crumbs and butter. (A lot of butter.) Just by looking at them, I knew something amazing was about to go down. But, before anything could happen, I had to figure out how to actually eat these crazy things. Normally I like to think of myself as a problem solver, but these snails had me stumped. The dish is served with a pair of weird tongs and a tiny fork that I had never seen before. After some trial and error, I discovered that, like many things in life, all I had to do what grab the snail by the shell with the perfectly shaped tongs and scoop out the buttery deliciousness with the adequately sized fork.
After successfully fishing the first snail out of its shell, I was hooked. Suddenly, I really was in that far-away land I dreamed of. And like herbed butter, my anxieties and stress had melted away. On days filled with anxiety, depression and whatever else the world had to offer, I've found myself making the same familiar trek past the Capitol and down South Hamilton Street in search of that feeling of wholeness. I always went back because I knew no matter what—whether it was a tough exam, long work day or breakups with stupid boys—I would always have snails. It had become a ritual.
As someone who's had a complicated relationship with food for a while, finding solace in it left me feeling conflicted. How could something so good also make me feel bad? Thoughts like, "this food makes me happy" and "I don't deserve to eat" regularly fought (and still fight) for supremacy in my mind. Like many people, I've struggled with the way I see and treat my body for years. From eating too much and overcompensating through exercise, to stress-induced fasting, I've put my body through the wringer.
The bickering between my happy and unhealthy inner monologues hasn't stopped, and part of me doubts it ever will. But recently, I've taken to pushing back against the latter voice because, let's be honest, I fucking love to eat. Even though "comfort food" was never a regularly used phrase in my childhood home, and "eating your feelings" was particularly frowned upon, finding joy and comfort in something as rich, luxurious and straight-up fattening as escargot is something I've learned to not only accept, but embrace.
From first dates to coworkers, I've introduced many people to the joys of escargot. Teaching them how to use the tongs and tiny fork never gets old, and the look of happy surprise when they finally eat a snail, and the insane amount of butter that can fit in/on a snail, for the first time is addicting.
These days, I mostly eat snails on happy occasions. Like when my friends and I are feeling particularly fancy on an otherwise unextraordinary night. Or when times call for celebration. Or for no real reason at all, other than the fact that I just want some damn snails.