How a Garden Snail Taught Me the Meaning of Life

Food and family and feelings of loss

Paulo da Silva
Feb 14 · 8 min read
Snail on grass with fantasy-style backlighting
Snail on grass with fantasy-style backlighting
Photo by Basil Smith on Unsplash

It must’ve been 1987, because I think I was six years old.

I remember the atmosphere like it was yesterday, although I’m foggy on the details — I was so young.

The essence of that atmosphere was the scent and feel of recent, heavy rain.

I honestly can’t tell you whose house we were in, but I do know we weren’t in Natal (now called KwaZulu-Natal, and where one of my aunts lived). We were somewhere in Johannesburg where the rest of my family hailed from. The Natal clan wasn’t there, which meant it was neither Christmas nor Easter vacation — just a weekend get-together for food and a good time, because that’s what Portuguese people do.

The other element I remember clearly was the sheer, raw excitement — not from us, the kids, but from the adults.

Someone — it might’ve been my father, although it could’ve also been my mother or one of my uncles — said, “Look at all that rain. Let’s make snails! Kids, you need to collect the snails!”

Hell, I had never eaten snails but I and my two cousins were all for rushing out into the drizzle and collecting whatever snails we could find. Any excuse to run around and get wet.

We were like brothers, my cousins and I. We grew up in the same building together, did karate together, flirted with girls together, went to school together, shot the breeze for years down in the outdoor eating area of our apartment block together, underneath the thatched roofs of the permanent “tiki umbrellas.” (We didn’t call them tiki umbrellas where we lived.)

One of those cousins — he was eleven months younger than I; but for twenty days of every year, between his birthday on Dec. 24 and my birthday on Jan. 15, we would be the same age — would lose his life in a mysterious one-car crash in Olhão, Portugal, sixteen years later. He had no drugs or alcohol in his blood. That stretch of road is known for its fatalities, but rarely for single car crashes. I remember losing all strength in my legs and weeping when my mother told me the news when I was twenty-one.

But he was alive and well on that drizzling day of 1987. And we were all drunk on the excitement which was rolling off the adults in waves.

“Fetch the snails! Go, go, go. Find the snails! They come out when it rains!”

And did they. Wow!

We had a 16-quart stock pot filled with them. The men were in the kitchen, laughing. My mom and aunts (I have a lot of aunts) were also in the kitchen, also laughing. All those snails — all that booty!

It was a hell of a time.

Don’t ask me for the recipe. I know my mom soaked them in water for a while. But here comes the gross part: Apparently you’re supposed to put salt on them, and then they start to exude slime.

Big time.

My cousins and I said, “Ew! They’re full of snot!”

“It’s to get all the dirt out,” my salt-wielding uncle said. “It’s so we can eat them,” my mother said. “They need to be cleaned.”

We didn’t care. We thought it was gross, so we went outside and played. I think we spent the rest of the afternoon looking for more snails.

In the end, the cooked snails were delicious. No stinky garlic and cream sauce on six measly French snails, no sirree. They were crispy, and spicy with piri-piri.

We didn’t care anymore about the snot which had come out of them earlier. They were so tasty.


I ate crispy garden snails again about twelve years later, although I wasn’t involved in collecting them. I was surprisingly saddened by that fact.

I came home from who-knows-where at about six in the evening and there were just a few on a plate left for me. “Here, son,” my mom said. “I saved these for you.” She and my stepdad had guests over.

As soon as that first crispy piri-piri snail hit my taste buds, I was immediately thrown back to that joyous family get-together of twelve years earlier, with everyone contented and ebullient and rosy-cheeked with joy.

But things were different now. My folks were divorced. My immediate family was the only one which had decided to remain in South Africa after apartheid finally (and blessedly) came down in 1994. My aunts and uncles and cousins had all left for Portugal. They had all been afraid of civil war.

Everyone in my family had fled a country before, as the majority of Portuguese in South Africa had done. My mother’s first three months in South Africa were spent in a refugee camp in the 70s after Angola broke out in war.

My little cousin was still alive then, but he would not be for long. I had lost touch with him already, though. He and his brother had started forgetting their English even though they were both in their teens when they left the country.

And there was no social media back then. Leaving a country meant leaving everyone you knew behind.

Things are different now. No one born in the Internet Age can ever truly understand that era’s proclivity for forgetting its people and its places.

But the memories flooded back in a torrent as I relished in the flavor of that solitary snail. I waxed enthusiastic to my stepfather — whom I have always gotten along with exceptionally well — about that day when I was six, when we had collected snails; that day of the heavy rain, of finding one more snail on a rock even after all the “snot” had been pulled from the rest of them.

But there were so few snails on my plate now. And the flavor of the memory disappeared as quickly as I scarfed them down.

When I asked my mom how many they had made, she said they hadn’t made many, barely a small pot. I didn’t know why that was. Maybe because there was no large lawn to fetch fresh snails from. Maybe because there were no kids to collect them. Maybe the snails had fled, taking with them all the joyous memories of our youth.

The reasons don’t matter. There were far less of the good things than there had once been, and that’s the whole point of this story.


The real crusher, however, came on the day I ordered snails at a restaurant.

Excuse me: Escargot.

I was well into my twenties. The restaurant was semi-posh. It was either in England, or here in Germany where I moved after meeting my wife-to-be on the internet. (We’ve been together over ten years, have a beautiful twenty-month-old daughter, and are expecting a son in a few weeks.)

I was so enthusiastic about ordering snails! I told her, while I eagerly awaited the surely massive plate, that my cousins and I had once collected snails, and there had been so many in the pot and it was raining outside and and and and…

The escargot arrived and I felt like I had been hit with a sledgehammer.

Six snails. Six snails!?

And they were in this awful creamy garlic sauce that I just knew was going to make my breath honk. Six — measly — freaking — snails.

“This is not how you cook snails!” I protested feebly.

And the price. Highway robbery! The damn things weren’t even crispy, and don’t even think about ordering that nebulous condiment called “piri-piri” in this four-star dive.

I finished the snails in two tiny bites and wiped my mouth, trying not to frown. I retold the snail-collecting story to my girlfriend (now my wife), grumbling, emphasizing the abundance there had been back then. “Nothing like this crap,” I said, indignant.

Her brows furrowed. She said, “I don’t think it’s safe to eat garden snails.”

What!? Sacrilege! These Europeans didn’t know shit about anything!


I’m thirty-nine now. I’ve long-since resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never again eat snails as delicious as those I ate when I was six.

But it wasn’t only about the flavor. It was about the people. About life before it went wrong. It was about life before 9/11, before the crime-rate skyrocketed in Johannesburg, before my mother went to a mall and had to hide under a table — twice — because of an ongoing armed robbery with live indoor gunfire. It was before my cousin died in a car wreck; and before his father, my uncle, died of cancer.

I lost two more uncles in the last few years. I was not close to them. I did not feel their loss. But my mother did. My aunts did. To them, they were not uncles. They were brothers.

There is more sadness in the air when our family comes together now. There are empty seats at a table which should not be empty at Christmastime.

But those snails. Those freaking snails and that “snot,” and my cousins and I running around in the drizzle, sniffing the fresh scent of grass, and shouting, “I found another one! I FOUND ANOTHER ONE!” Then picking it up off the rock, looking with new eyes at that trail of slime it left behind (surely the notorious snot!), racing over the moist lawn, holding the snail out as if it were a rough diamond.

That memory is right here with me, close to me. It’s mine, only mine. It lives inside me like a second, unending life. I think of it every time it rains, every time I see a slug or a garden snail.

One day, when my daughter’s old enough, it’ll start to drizzle and I’ll tell her about the time we ran around in the rain as little boys and collected snails to eat.

“To eat!” she might say. “Ew! That’s gross!” And maybe I’ll say, “But it gets even grosser, honey. Let me tell you about all that snot.”

Maybe I’ll find a recipe and make them with her someday, to try and recover the essence of that day, of that refugee Portuguese family who had been through so much, but still had each other. A family who had lost so many things, and yet still smiled, not really comprehending, in that moment of joy, that there was still so much more left to lose.

I think none of us ever truly appreciates, when we’re young, the sheer magnitude of potential loss awaiting us in our lifetime.

And what do we have left when those people we loved have gone? What do we have left when the neighborhoods of our childhood homes are riddled with crime, no longer safe to visit?

We have the snails.

We have the memories.

When I see a snail in the rain, I think of my cousin who was like a brother, and how he lives on eternally in the joyfully sad memories of my mind.

I think of the meaning of life, and of the importance of filling that life with good memories, good times.

All this from a snail.

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing…

Paulo da Silva

Written by

Loving Dad. Mostly mediocre. Totally not famous. Writes for a living. https://uk.authorpaulo.com

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

Paulo da Silva

Written by

Loving Dad. Mostly mediocre. Totally not famous. Writes for a living. https://uk.authorpaulo.com

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

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