Conch Kingdom: A Brief History of the Queen in Key West
In the wake of the 55th Annual Key West Conch Blowing Competition, we thought it appropriate to share some sage island wisdom about the Caribbean Queen conch and all its rich history, uses, and styles of preparations.
Starting from the beginning, “conch” (pronounced “konk”), said incorrectly, is the very first indication that you are a fish out of water when it comes to visiting the Keys. Any mispronunciation of one of our most sacred words is a dead give away that you’re an out-of-towner tourist in need of a sunscreen reapplication. The “ch” sound, though used in the chowder it’s commonly served in, should never be said in relation to our beloved sea snail—cardinal sin numero uno. It’s not that we locals are sensitive, it’s actually because the designation is used in so many aspects of our life in paradise.
Bahamian’s, migrating to the island and bringing the industry with them, originally earned the label through their dedication to the lifestyle of diving, collecting, filleting, and selling what is now one of the most popular local fares on the island rivaled only by key lime pie. But, these days being a conch means you also live in a conch house and more than likely drive a beat-up conch cruiser, which are those given a quirky paint job to cover up the age and blemish of your beloved vehicle. Every respectable household or bed and breakfast flies the blue Conch Republic flag, designed during a tongue-in-cheek secession from the U.S. and kept for reasons far deeper. Even the local high school uses the mollusk as their mascot!
The shell, itself, as portrayed on the flag and all throughout our Key West themed art, was historically used a number of ways including, but not limited to, a knife, hammer, scoop, digger, weapon, jewelry, and serving dish. Most famously it is used as a trumpet. Sawing off the top inch of the queen conch’s spiral gives way to the mouth piece of the instrument that was used to mark celebrations, war, greetings, death, and even the end of a day’s work. These days, we pair ridiculous costumes and dance moves to the sound of the shell to win over the conch blowing judges. It’s quite the scene…
However, its not the majestic shell bringing the tourists down…it’s the meat! Conch meat, when tenderized, filleted, and prepared correctly, is widely referred to as one of the choicest seafoods in the world. Down here in the southernmost U.S., we’re serving up conch in the most popular Caribbean ways. First and foremost, conch fritters! The most popular way to eat conch, fritters are served every which way from hush puppy-like balls to flat style pancakes. All that matters in that they serve them meaty and accompanied with homemade sauce. If you’ve never been impressed, join Key West Food Tours’ Southernmost Tour where Camille’s serves a great dish of fritters with a side of addictive key lime remoulade.
If you like that, the next step is Conch Chowder. This spicy Manhattan-style chowder packs a punch. Conch tastes very similar to clams, so any chowder lover should order this asap at El Siboney while visiting. If you’ve grown fond of the taste, advance to cracked conch. For those familiar with fried calamari, cracked conch is a tenderized filet that’s then breaded and fried served with a dipping sauce. Chewy and scrumptious, ordering Conch Shack cracked conch can lead to a habit, don’t forget it’s fried!
For my seafood aficionados, however, its conch ceviche, also coined “conch salad” on many menus, that we recommend. This refreshing dish is served raw paired with minced peppers, onions, cilantro, and doused with lime juice, vinegar, and oil. The lime cooks and helps to tenderize the meat. It’s served cold, salsa-style with tortilla chips and makes for a fantastic appetizer or happy hour snack. It’s a local secret, but Mr. Johnson of Johnson’s Grocery on Petronia St will prep you some to go, you need only ask.
Whatever brings you down here, make sure to relish in the conch lifestyle and hey, maybe you’ll even take one back with you—they say you can hear the sound of the ocean by holding one up to your ear… if not, they make great planters.