Conch meat was a staple
food of the early settlers in the Keys, In the early 1800s, people from the Bahamas began
migrating there. These immigrants were called conchs because of the sea snail they like to
eat of the same name that was their staple food. By 1891, it is estimated that a third of
the Key West population was Bahamian. This explains why the word conch is so much a part
of the area's heritage. Natives of Key West, Florida, and the Bahamas proudly call
first conchs were British sympathizers. Some accounts indicate they were given the name of
conch after escaping to the Bahamas during the American Revolution and announcing that
rather than go to war they'd eat conch. Another explanation indicates they were called
conch because of the great quantity of conch in their diet and because they used the shell
as a signaling trumpet. When Florida became a territory of the United States in
1821, Bahamians who wanted to continue the business of wrecking had to move the Keys. They
brought their love of conch with them. Writer Slyvia Sunshine in her book Petals
Plucked from Sunny Climes in explained the origin of the term in 1880,
"Conchs were the original English
settlers of this place, who came here from New Providence and the adjacent islands of the
Bahama group. "Couch" is not, as many suppose, a term of contempt, but a local
distinction. When the first regiment of colonial militia was organized at Nassau, they
adopted the figure of a conch-shell in gold, with a blue field, for their regimental
colors, thereby declaring the protection of their natural position; from this the term is
applied more particularly to those from that city. They are a temperate, frugal,
industrious class of persons, accustomed for generations to procuring a living from the
sea; but many of them on this island have turned their talents in other directions,
controlling a large part of the commercial business of the place. The greater portion of
them are engaged in wrecking, sponging, or fishing for the Havana market, many owning fine
vessels, and being men of respectability, although belonging to those classes whose names,
to one not acquainted with them, appear an equivalent to buccaneers or pirates."
In 1985, the harvesting of the conch was banned, and it is now illegal to
take live conch in U.S. waters, where they are an endangered species, so
most conch now comes from the various Caribbean islands, including the
Bahamas (where it is sometimes called 'hurricane ham')
Foods, Bay Shore Chowders
This recipe was generously shared with me
by Jan Knowles Myers, formerly of Key West, Florida. This history and recipe
were in my second cookbook called
I'll Have What They're Having.
"My hometown is Key West, and I'm a 4th generation Key
West native or "conch" and a 5th generation Florida native. Back when I was
young, Key West was a quaint little fishing village with no where near the
level of tourism that currently exists. I truly loved my childhood and
growing up in Key West. This chowder recipe was my father's. He was George
Irving Knowles, Jr. (1915-1984), a 3rd generation Key West native. Much of
my family came to Key West from the Bahamas, arriving as early as the 1840s,
although my French great-great-great-grandfather, Odet Philippe, had
traveled to the city in the 1820s."
Conch Chowder - How To Make Conch Chowder
Yields: 6 to 8 servings
Prep time: 30 min
Cook time: 1 hr
onions, finely chopped
2 to 3 cloves
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can whole tomatoes, undrained and cut up*
2 1/2 to 3 pounds couch meat, cleaned and ground**
potatoes, peeled and finely chopped
2 quarts water (approximately)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
* To easily prepare the tomatoes, use a
sharp knife and cut the tomatoes while still in the can.
** Because conch meat is very tough, you
must grind it using a meat grinder or food processor.
In a large, heavy pot over medium-high
heat, add onions, garlic, bell pepper, and tomatoes; cook until vegetables are soft.
Reduce heat to low; add ground conch meat, potatoes, and enough water to make it soupy but not watery. Let simmer 1
hour. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Remove from heat and serve in individual soup bowls.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.