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Selected feature stories from Abaco Life magazine

CONCH: A ROYAL GIFT FROM THE SEA
By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

It doesn't soar through the air like an eagle, race over the terrain like a graceful gazelle or roar like a lion, but in Abaco, the Conch is King. Or at least Queen.

Well before Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, the native Lucayan Indians used the Queen Conch for food, tools, decoration, building material and jewelry, and 500 years later the current natives continue the process. Not only do folks here consume prodigious quantities of conch salad, conch fritters, conch burgers and cracked conch, they also make and wear conch jewelry, landscape and decorate their homes with conch shells, create conch art and sell conch souvenirs. In fact, nothing in the Bahamas or Abaco has stood the test of time quite like the slow-moving, algae-eating, easy-to-catch, hard-to-clean mollusk shellfish known as the conch.

They've been around these parts for 65 million years. Officially known as Strombus Gigas, Queen Conch (pronounced KONK) can be found from Brazil northward through the West Indies, Florida Keys and as far north as Bermuda. But because they have been vastly depleted by large populations in the Caribbean and the Americas, they now exist in large numbers only in the Bahamas, where they are not only a traditional food staple, but a national symbol.

At his stand adjacent to Harbour View Marina in Marsh Harbour, George "Show Bow" Wilmore slices and dices with a smile, chopping the moist white meat of the Queen Conch and mixing it with sour orange, lime, peppers, onion, tomato and salt. A line of hungry customers often forms, usually around mid-morning, their appetites further stimulated by Show Bow's showmanship.

"The secret's in the ingredients," says Show Bow. "Some use cabbage or cucumber, but not me. I go strictly by tradition."

He is one of four entrepeneurs in Marsh Harbour, Dundas Town and Murphy Town who "basically fix fresh conch salad in front of your eyes," he says. "They got their customers and I got mine."

in fact, his closest competitor is just down the street in front of Abaco Market on Queen Elizabeth Drive. Bruce "Froggie" McIntosh and his wife, Elva, set up their own program almost daily. Froggie perches on a stool in the back of his pickup, a slicing board in front and a rapidly slicing knife flashing down on his own particular recipe for conch salad. Soon, he says, Elva and he will be opening a small cabana-type resort and restaurant off Forest Drive called "Conch Paradise" where they will continue to serve up conch salad as well as drinks.

There is money to be made in the conch salad business, but it takes a special kind of person to put up with the work. Vendors like Show Bow and Froggie get up before dawn to go conching along the sandy and grassy bottom in water ten to 30 feet deep. They stock and maintain "conch crawls" with 500 to 600 conchs and, on a good day, they often use 50 or 60 conch to make 100 cups of conch salad, selling it at $5 to $6 a cup.

Once you have found them, catching conch and keeping them is easy. Using a muscular foot, the Queen Conch literally moves at a snail's pace. The long, narrow foot has a horny, hook-shaped operculum on the end which the conch uses to propell itself in the sand. She had her origins there as a gelatinous strand of eggs wrapped around and around until it formed a banana-shaped mass. For about a month after hatching as an embryo, the conch floated as a microscopic larva until sinking forever to the bottom, buried for protection in the sand and feeding only at night on algae. The flaring outer lip that distinguishes a mature conch doesn't even begin to build until the creature is two years old, and it takes about four years for the conch to reach a full grown stature of eight to 12 inches with a weight of up to five pounds. Taking conch that does not have a full lip, no matter how large the shell base, is frowned upon, since that depletes the population. Free diving is also the only legal way to gather them.

The Queen Conch, which is the only type eaten in the Bahamas, is easily corraled. Holes are made in the shell lip and several conch are strung together. When an old dock was pulled up for replacement a few years back in Hope Town, workers found seven conch tied together and fastened to a piling. They had been forgotten by a fisherman seven years earlier, but were doing just fine, thank you.

But while catching and keeping them is one thing, cleaning and preparing conch is another. Separating the animal from its home correctly, with a minimum of mess, is an island art form. Abaco fishermen like Show Bow and Froggie pride themselves in how fast they can accomplish this task, which requires a hammer, screw driver, and a thin, very sharp knife. With the shell held opening down and spire inward, a hole is made with the hammer and screwdriver on the spire of the shell between the second and third row of horny nodes. This is known as "cracking" or "knocking." The knife is then inserted in the hole and the tendon is cut so the animal can be pulled out by the operculum, a step called "jooking." Finally, the conch is cleaned, a tricky, messy procedure appropriately known as "slopping."

An expert can crack, jook and slop 25 conch in under ten minutes. People like Show Bow and Froggie are usually so fast that watching them reveals little about technique. Amateurs often find the job a sticky, slimy mess. A black mucuous substance that emerges with the conch frequently gets all over your boat, your clothes or both. It is next to impossible to get off, except with lime and lemon juice combined with vinegar.

The shell is another matter. Cleaned up with commercial bleach, small amounts of muriatic acid or simply left to bleach naturally in the sun, they are bright pink, yellow and peach coloured. Found in abundance near almost any dock or bought from numerous vendors, conch shells adorn mantles, shelves, tables and porches of homes around the world. Many Abaconians use them to decorate planters and walls. One man created a conch shell water fountain on his private island, while Hope Town Hideaways Resort made a glimmering garden wall.

They are also the subject for paintings, and artisans fashion the shell into jewelry, carving from the pink twirl just inside the shell, just as they did centuries ago. Nor have conch pearls lost their value over the years. Depending on the shape, colour and size, they can fetch as much as $1,000. As rare as South Pacific pearls, they cannot be cultured like their oyster counterparts, having formed from a microorganism rather than a grain of irritating sand. No two are alike and colours range from white and beige to pink, red and brown. The most desirable are dark pink, and because they tend to fade in the light, they have an exotic mystique as "night only" jewels. Smooth and sometimes shiny, the best are set by jewelers and artisans with diamonds, rubies and gold in pendants, rings and earrings. A lucky fisherman who is looking for them can make hundreds of extra dollars, but they are rarely found in the routine, expeditious cleaning process. You are more likely to bite into one in your conch salad.

Better yet, just enjoy your meal. Conch is still a major food source in the Bahamas where an estimated half million pounds are consumed each year. Properly prepared, raw or cooked, the meat is tasty and full of nutrients and vitamins. It has a firm, chewy texture, especially raw in salads. Local men are sometimes fond of slurping down a long, transparent rod or tube known as a "style" that comes from the conch's stomach and is reputed to be a male energizer. The rest of the animal can be prepared in a dozen or more ways, usually pounded for tenderizing before cooking. Arrive early at any Abaco restaurant and you are likely to hear wooden or metal mallets pounding in the kitchen as cooks prepare cracked, stewed, battered or breaded conch dishes.

But whether it's food, artwork, jewelry or just an inexpensive but distinctive ornament, the durable conch remains a highly visible symbol of Abaco. Long live the Queen!

E-mail: jimkerr@mindspring.com

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