What can you say about a 27-year-old World Champion Snail-Eater who died? That he had eaten 72 snails in three minutes flat in a French disco? That he was well on his way to breaking his own world record?
These were among the questions legions of grief-stricken snail-eaters included in the French body politic were reduced to contemplating after the death this week of a man who had come to be the very embodiment of gastropod gastronomy.
Marc Quinquandon, a train engineer who had eaten his way to the top of the slippery world of snail-eating, was obviously not content to rest on his laurels. The champion was trying to cut in half his world record of 12 dozen snails pulled from their shells and downed in 11 minutes, 30 seconds when indigestion felled him last Saturday night.
Within 24 hours, the six dozen snails he had ingested in three minutes had done their worst. Marc Quinquandon, despite all the considerable forces that his 367-pound body could muster, was no more.
It had been a short reign since he took the title from a field of challengers at the Olympic Games of the Absurd in his native Lorraine in July. It was a university recognized triumph of northern French mind and technique over southern French romantcism as defined in the old Catalan proverb, "In July, neither snails nor women."
As in all things, however, the Gauls are divided in three parts:
The snail-eaters, who could only be sincere admirers of the man, however much they might also have felt envy, a quality that is not alien to the French national character.
The frog-eaters, a segment of French society whose dominant position is a myth nurtured by the Anglo-Saxons. The insistence of the frog-eaters that theirs is a far more subtle eating experience than the vulgar, garlic-laden heartiness of snail consumption is recognized by many non-partisan observers as the bitter expression of a party in decline. The frog-eaters will tell you that there is nothing to snail-eating but a rough taste for garlic and a peculiar texture.
The consumers of steak-pommes frites -- that great silent majority that rejects both the snail and the frog as unnatural diets that are a bad accompaniment to the national drink, carafes of gros rouge.
Yet in any analysis of France, things are, of course, not that simple. All the hybrid shades of those who eat both snails and frogs in varying proportions must also be taken into consideration in judging the French situation apres Quinquandon.
There has always been a small body of medically oriented gourmets who understood the stark truth that snails are hard to digest and that the snail is so omnivorous that it can devour plants, like bellodonna, that are potentially fatal to man.
The real connoisseur prefers the rangy taste of the wild snail. But the more prudent and practiced take care to give those snails a minimal domestication of two weeks to rid them of all traces of toxic substances before consigning them to butter.
After l'affaire Quinquandon, however, it is an open question whether the snail-eaters of France and the commercial interests that crawl behind them are going to be able to maintain their current role in French society.
For one thing, it seems inevitable that the state will be called upon to lay down rules in one of the last unregulated sectors of French commerce. According to one estimate, there are 40,000 kinds of edible and nonedible snails. Careful codification of what can and cannot be eaten and under what conditions opens tempting vistas for the battalions of regulation-writers of the nation that gave the world the Napoleonic Code. The pace of the convoluted work to be undertaken is undoubtedly going to be equal to the very nature of the subject.
There is also going to have to be a more serious cataloguing of all the ways of preparing the escargot. There are eight known recipes in the Languedoc region alone. It may be that the Quinquandon affair is going to give new impetus to those who prepare the escargot in the dominant Burgundian way that is almost the only method of preparation known in America -- with melted butter, chopped parsley and heavy on the garlic.
Quinquandon, a Lorrainer from Eastern France, represented a dissident faction of snail-eaters who say to hell with Burgundy, that is to say, to hell with garlic. The snail recipes of Alsace and Lorraine tended to a balance of herbs with only a soupcon of garlic tolerated. The people of Quinquandon's region even had pretentions to ennoble the lowly shelled slugs, by cooking them in champagne.
Quinquandon's demise seems likely to produce a counteroffensive by advocates of a close alliance of the garlic clove and the escargot since the Burgundian recipe did not do him in.
Also at stake is the future of a complicated world commerce. France produced nearly 4,000 tons of snails last year, according to the escargot department of the French Canning Confederation.
But the French hunger for the snail outstrips native reproduction. So the French imported more than 9,000 tons, principally from Yugoslavia. Hungary, Turkey and Taiwan (even though there is a lively debate over whether what comes in from Taiwan are proper snails at all). There are those who say they are nothing but rubbery sea slugs sold in cans packaged with containers of empty shells into which the cook is expected to stuff an animal that does not really belong.
To complicate matters, France also exports nearly 2,000 tons, about half the native production. The biggest buyer is neighboring West Germany (545 tons in 1978), but the United States was right behind last year (527 tons).
Already, there is speculation that the snail-vending interests are not going to hunker down in their shells. They are putting out the story from Quinquandon's native Bouillonville, greeted by Paris observers with reserve and skepticism, that he could not really have died of snail-eating. They claim that eating onion soup and dancing on Saturday night is probably responsible.
That version, however, seems to be out of keeping with the character and dedication of Quinquandon himself, who was in training to set a new record next year. "Quinquandon," said a high-level frog-eating source who refused to be named, "was a redoubtable adversary whose memory commands respect.Any suggestion that the snails didn't get him is an insult to his memory."