Andrea Zanivan
Photo credit: Andrea Zanivan

Old Creole balladeers and veteran conch (pronounced “konk”) eaters know that, yes, “conch ain’t got no bones,” but it sure sports a shell. Piles of queen conch shells (Strombidae gigas) litter the Caribbean islands, as do pithy native sayings about conch: “He beats his wife like one beats a conch,” a sad commentary on Haitian life.

Piles of Conch Shells
Piles of Conch Shells

In the Caribbean, the ubiquitous conch provided a major protein source for the Arawak Indians who inhabited the islands. But, like the buffalo of the Great Plains, the conch also gave the native island dwellers far more: chisels, axes, trumpets, and ceremonial carvings were fashioned from its shell.

When Columbus “discovered” the islands in 1492,   he wrote of finding conch shells “as big as the head of a calf” off the coast of Cuba. And he and his men ate these creatures, too. Once he brought these shells to Spain, Europeans quickly collected them as mantelpieces and to create jewelry, especially carved cameos. Thus, during the nineteenth century,  suppliers shipped thousands of conch shells to Europe every year for jewelry, and porcelain, too. The practice of making cameos from conch shells supposedly began in Naples.

Jeff Whitfield
Making Cameos from Conch Shells in Naples (Photo credit: Jeff Whitfield)

Conch has also been very prevalent in the Florida Keys, where the word “conch” can mean a local human resident as well as the marine form. The name, as applied to humans, probably originated in the Bahamas and followed English emigrants settling in Key West in the 1880’s. Finding conch presented no problems in those days, but getting the conch out of the shell was another matter altogether. Cooks devised numerous methods for doing so and the most efficient method damaged the glorious shell: hungry eaters punched a hole in the third spiral of the shell and cut  the columellar muscle attaching the body to the shell. The conch body then dropped out. Another crueler, and slower method, which keeps the shell intact, was to grasp the conch’s “foot” with a hook and then hang the shell from a line, waiting for gravity to take its toll.

Milk or Ivory Conch
Milk or Ivory Conch

Besides the queen conch, other edible varieties include the samba, Verrill’s conch, milk or ivory conch, and hankwing conch.

Once a cook separates the conch from its shell, preparing conch for cooking requires two major steps: (1) skinning the muscle and (2) tenderizing the skinned muscle. “Conch ain’t got no bones,” that’s for sure but if you don’t tenderize the flesh, it might as well be bone once it’s cooked. Pound the conch with a metal meat mallet and or grind it in a food processor or blender, depending upon the recipe to be prepared.

Conch makes tasty chowders, salads, fritters, and just plain fried conch strips.

NUTRITION NOTES: Conch supplies an excellent source of protein and 3 1/2 oz. of raw conch yields 137 calories. Sodium content of conch hovers around 206 mg per 3 1/2 oz.

Serves 8

4 large conchs, cleaned and left whole
2 quarts water
3 celery stalks, chopped
3 carrots, peeled, chopped
1 green pepper, halved
1 large onion, sliced
2 large garlic cloves
3 large tomatoes, chopped
1/2 t. dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
6 T. butter
5 T. flour
3 cups half-and-half
1/3 cup dry sherry

Garnish: Finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

Put conch, water, and vegetables in a large pot, bring to a boil, and cook for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the conch and strain the broth.

Grind the conch, add the broth, salt and pepper, and cook for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour, and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Stir in the half-and-half and cook over low heat until sauce thickens. Slowly pour the sauce into the soup, add the sherry, and simmer for 12 minutes. DO NOT BOIL.

Ladle soup into individual bowls and garnish with parsley.

Kristen Taylor
Photo credit: Kristen Taylor

Makes about 3 dozen

1 pound conch, cleaned and ground
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cup flour
2 1/2 t. baking powder
Salt to taste (about 1/2-3/4 t.)
2 T. minced onion
1 garlic clove, mashed and minced
1/2 t. hot sauce or 1 T. chopped hot peppers
Oil for frying

Beat egg and milk together. Mix dry ingredients together and add to the milk mixture. Stir in the conch, onion, garlic, and hot pepper sauce. Batter should be thick, but moist.

Heat oil and drop in batter by tablespoons. Cook until golden brown all over and drain on paper towels. Serve with seafood cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, or just plain hot sauce.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen