GLYNDON, MD. -- For J.T. St. Bell, switching jobs nine months ago meant trading a dozen race horses for 20,000 gastropod mollusks.

"I always said I'd do things until I didn't enjoy them anymore," says the fledgling entrepreneur, who explains that after 10 years in the horse-breeding business, "I had my fill of arrogant horse buyers." Besides, she adds, the transition from "slow horses to slow snails seems logical."

So these days, instead of raising, training and selling Arabians and thoroughbreds, she's displaying what she likes to call her "road show," a small plastic container holding four surprisingly lively petit gris snails, considered by gourmands to be among the best eating. The rest of her slimy herd, just a few weeks away from market size, lies in several hundred deep plastic buckets, locked behind the doors of a two-story barn-like structure she has leased on a sprawling mushroom farm.

East Coast Escargot is what St. Bell calls her company, and it is the East coast market she intends to first tap, by offering both fresh and canned snails that she feels are superior to the imported variety more frequently encountered by consumers. Hers is the first such business to be permitted by the state agriculture department to operate in Maryland, where snails are considered a serious plant pest, and one of apparently only two state-licensed commercial snail ranches in the United States (the other is the 3-year-old Enfant Riant in Petaluma, Calif., which sells from 20- to 25,000 dozen snails per month).

Though St. Bell has yet to sell a single mollusk, her waiting list of potential clients, counting several Washington restaurants, includes a dozen French purveyors. "Can you imagine the French looking to America for a source for one of their prime treats?" she asks, laughing. (In fact, the French consume an estimated 30,000 tons of snails annually, according to the Center for Foreign Trade {CFCE} in Paris, and import what they can't produce themselves from Greece, Turkey, Indonesia and elsewhere.)

Belying St. Bell's market research and the success of her West Coast counterpart, Americans haven't demonstrated much affection for the stuff: A recent Gallup survey of unusual foods ranked snails just behind brains as the food consumers most detested, with 39 percent of those polled indicating they would never want to try escargots.

"That leaves 61 percent" who might try snails, says a confident St. Bell. As with similar gourmet items, "this is a market already in place." The businesswoman plans for her snails, packed in spring water in 7 1/2-ounce cans, to sell for $7-$9 retail. (At Sutton Place Gourmet, which sells the California product, a 7 1/2-ounce can costs $7.99; at Giant, a 4 1/2-ounce tin of French snails costs $3.79; Safeway sells a 7-ounce can of French snails for $2.99.)

If the decision to abandon horses in favor of snails was an easy one, the career change has been riddled with obstacles. For one thing, most of the available information on snails details techniques for eradicating, as opposed to nurturing, the animal. And most of the pertinent scientific literature is printed either in French or Italian, adds St. Bell, who had volumes of journals translated into English.

Moreover, officials at the Maryland Department of Agriculture first had to be convinced of the soundness of her proposal. "Generally, we are extremely reluctant to get involved in these situations," notes Bill Gimpel, chief of the department's plant protection section and one of two supervisors working with St. Bell. While inquiries have been relatively few in number, Gimpel acknowledges, the department denies several requests from prospective snail farmers each year. St. Bell was granted a permit only after she invested in a facility that is virtually escape-proof, on a site that is also vegetation free (the concrete structure is surrounded by asphalt).

"They were tough," says the entrepreneur of her supervisors. To satisfy the inspectors' demands, St. Bell watches over her operation like a guard at Ft. Knox. Only those employes directly responsible for the daily cleaning, feeding and watering are permitted into the snail houses, and then only after they don protective overalls with banded pants legs, to prevent the accidental transfer of any snails to the outside. Further, entrances and windows are bordered with copper flashing, which repels the snails, and thereby keeps them contained.

Such caution on the part of the state agricultural officials is not without good reason. About three years ago, a shipment of snail-contaminated nursery stock brought into Laurel from California resulted in the partial quarantine of a local commercial nursery. While the infestation is now under control, the state agriculture department "has yet to declare the area free of snails," according to Gimpel.

St. Bell understands the concern. "These guys are prolific," she says knowingly of her snails. To illustrate a point, she offers that she started with 3,000 snails and expects to reach her target of 50 million within the next 18 months.

Snails are hermaphrodites, which means they have both male and female sex parts, although they must mate with another before they lay eggs. A snail can breed three to four times a year, and lay from 50 to 80 eggs, with a survival rate of about 80 percent, each period.

To ensure the optimum environment for her snails, St. Bell created a setting that provides 9 1/2 hours of illumination (snails are nocturnal) and a high degree of humidity (around 92 percent). Unlike their wild counterparts -- which, depending upon the species, feed on such diverse meals as mud and fish -- St. Bell's snails don't have to forage for their food. Instead, they are hand-fed a diet of select grains, and fruits and vegetables including carrots, cucumbers, watermelon and strawberries.

The petis gris, often referred to as the common brown garden snail, is but one of an estimated 60,000 species of snails, according to Robert Hershler, an associate curator with the Smithsonian's mollusk division. Land snails range in size from about a millimeter long to the Giant African snail, which can grow up to a foot in length. The latter is often sliced and canned and passed off as escargot.

Hershler cautions against the consumption of snails one might encounter around the home or garden. "It's not a terribly good idea to eat them," advises the curator, who points out that wild varieties need to first be starved (to clear their digestive tracts of foliage inimical to humans), and then rinsed and cooked several times in acidulated water to destroy potential parasites or bacteria.

(St. Bell, prior to par-boiling and repeatedly rinsing her snails, withholds food from them for three days.)

Eventually, St. Bell hopes to process her snails on-site in Glyndon. For now, she's sending small numbers of her product to canneries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where the snails are custom-packed, and forwarded to a food chemical laboratory in Baltimore, where the mollusks are tested to ensure the sterility of the canning proccess, and the final kinks are being smoothed out.

With the actual marketing of the snails several months away, there's the problem of St. Bell becoming too attached to her subjects. Looking down at her wriggling "road show," she smiles and says, "I try not to spend too much time looking at them or I'll have 50 million pets."

St. Bell calls herself "the founder, owner, president, chief cook and bottle washer" of East Coast Escargot. Over the course of the past year, though, she's been assisted in her undertaking by her brother, who initially helped with the breeding process, her mother, who tested recipes, and her father, who St. Bell dubs "the official taster, the one with the perks."

Here are some of the fruits of their culinary labor:

SNAILS WITH CELERY CREAM SAUCE (4 servings)

3 dozen fresh snails or one 7 1/2-ounce tinSTART NOTE a 7 1/2-ounce tin contains 3 dozen? sounds like a lot. pcr Correct, checked with sutton place-tws

2 tablespoons olive oil

About 1/2 pound celery root, peeled and julienned

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup cream or half-and-half

1/4 teaspoon cumin

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Drain snails. Heat a medium-size frying pan and add olive oil. Saute' celery root until barely tender, about 5 minutes. Do not brown the vegetable. Remove celery and keep warm on plate. Add remaining ingredients (except snails) and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and reduce the sauce by half. Add snails and simmer until heated through, about 3 minutes. Serve snails over a bed of celery root with sauce on top.

ESCARGOTS ROYALE (4 servings)

4 shallots, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 teaspoons butter

7 1/2-ounce tin snails

Pinch saffron threads

3 teaspoons pernod

About 4 cups loosely packed spinach, washed and drained

Saute' half the minced shallots and half the garlic in 1 teaspoon butter. Add the escargots and saute' over high heat. Stir in saffron. Add the pernod and ignite with a long kitchen match.

In a separate pan, add the remaining butter, garlic and shallots. Saute' quickly, then add spinach and saute' for 2 minutes more. Put the spinach on the bottom of an oven-proof dish, arranging escargots on top. Brown quickly in a very hot oven. Serve with garlic bread.

ESCARGOT SOUP (6 servings)

1 medium garlic clove, halved

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium shallots, minced

1 medium leek (white part only), julienned

3 ounces celery root, peeled and julienned

1 small carrot, peeled and julienned

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 7 1/2-ounce cans snails, drained (reserve liquid)

1 cup whipping cream

2 egg yolks, beaten

3 cups veal or beef stock

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

Minced fresh chervil (optional)

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Rub the inside of a large, heavy saucepan with cut side of garlic. Add butter and melt over medium-low heat. Add shallots and cook until transparent, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add leek, celery root, and carrot and cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add wine and reduce slightly. Add snails and stir until heated through.

In a separate pan, gently heat cream, slowly adding egg yolks. Add stock to vegetable mixture, along with remaining ingredients (including cream-egg blend), and bring to a simmer. Season soup with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared one day ahead and refrigerated).

Saute'ed Snails

Rinse (fresh or canned) snails with warm water and lemon juice once, then in cold water twice. Blot with paper towel. Toss snails lightly in flour seasoned with a seasoning mix or a taste you prefer (perhaps basil, oregano, etc.). Heat a fine oil, such as hazelnut, in a saute' pan. Add fine wine of your choice to taste with 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and crushed garlic to taste. Place snails in the heated oil mixture and saute' about 3 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from pan, skewer individually with fancy wooden toothpicks, and serve warm.