The Conch Life
We’ve hit the real vacation stretch of August, and you know what that means among the food-obsessed: time to play What I Ate on My Summer Vacation.
A “destination wedding” recently landed me on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, a quick water-taxi ride from Eleuthera. The place is remote (and hot) enough to make East Coasters feel as though they are far, far away. Ramshackle cottages and cinderblock tenements are next-door neighbors to the private entrances of low-key, lush resorts with mesmerizing ocean views. The water segues from aquamarine to the blue of huskies’ eyes, set off by beaches of pale pink sand that is cool underfoot.
I figured the fare would be fresh and tropical, and some of it was. But not as much as I’d expected. Sure, there was grouper caught within a few miles; avocados and mangoes just off the trees; local pineapples (not those gold-fleshed things from Dole but the sweet, almost-white insides of young fruit with tender, edible cores). John the innkeeper told me the tentacles of food-service giant Sysco stretched there to fill large-quantity, year-round orders for the hotels. “Tomatoes -- the things picked green and never quite bright-red -- are brought here,” he said. “It’s a shame we can’t even grow enough local tomatoes.” Water availability’s an ongoing problem on the island.
At the dock, I saw food boxes loaded onto small, beat-up trucks that verified his claims. During my short stay, the texture of the lobster tail I ate suggested the meat had been frozen. Greens on the plate seemed to be the same as the mixed-bag kind at Giant. Salad with cooked pears, blue cheese and walnuts? Not so Caribbean.
However, queen conch made the trip for me. It’s . . . What I Ate.
Don't fuss. I won't be buying it in D.C., as it has earned “Avoid” status on Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch list. Besides, now that I know what it tastes like fresh, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
Two spots on Harbour Island treat it right. Without a local’s nod in the right direction, I might not have discovered them on my own. The first is not so far from the main dock: a sturdy and spotless stand called Queen Conch that’s open from noon till whenever, Mondays through Saturdays. A guy hammers the conch out of their shells in the back, pulling each one straight from the water as he works. Two women chop, chop, chop piles of onions and peppers on a counter in front. Then they start on the trimmed pieces of conch, cutting them in a way that tenderizes the meat yet leaves it a little chewy. (Think clam-escargot chewy, with more wild-seafood flavor.)
Whether the mixture of crisp vegetables and conch is marinated ceviche-style in the juice of sour orange or another citrus, I can’t quite say. The recipe is closely held. The women chop at one speed, no matter how many customer names are added to the list (mild, medium or hot; time of estimated pickup depends on the length of the list; I signed up at 1 p.m. for a 3 p.m. order). One of the women has been making conch salad at the site for 15 years. Neither is interested in having her name or image displayed on the Web (“no YouTube, please”) because the stand has more business than the crew can handle. Prices for pints are now at $10; they’ve doubled in the past decade, but I figure the salad would go for $30 per pound if it were ever Star-Trek beamed to the States.
This salad could be mistaken for a chunky conch salsa. One refrigerated day later, the conch offers slightly less resistance to the tooth but is still clearly a distinct component. Innkeeper John likes to drain the liquid from salad leftovers and use the bits and pieces as filling for a toasted sandwich with melted cheese – a treatment I would have loved to try.
Around the first righthand corner from Queen Conch and up the hill is a gray shingled house with louvered windows at half-mast and no hint of the treasure within. This is where Pearl lives. She cooks conch fritters to order in her countertop deep-fryer. “Come back in 20 minutes,” she says. The old woman has just received a 10-pound sack of small chili peppers that cost her about $25. Pearl puts a handful of them to good use. She minces yellow, orange and green ones, adds onion and pieces of fresh conch meat to a bowl of pinkish batter made with flour, a touch of cornmeal, egg and hot sauce. She says she’s been making fritters forever.
Pearl could be charging more than 25 cents each. But that’s her neighborly price. Islanders pull up or walk up, call out, come back, then pick up. Hers are nothing like the fritters served at touristy places on the island. They are a perfect bite, nicely rounded with heat and a substantial amount of those unmistakably chewy bits of conch. If only she carried cold Kalik . . . .
Nonetheless, it was hard to knock back more than a few of Pearl’s finest due to overindulgences at the weekend’s buffets and cocktail receptions. I asked if I could come back tomorrow for more.
No, no, she said, nodding toward the tiny church across the street. "It’s the Lord’s day."
Now it’s your turn. What You Ate was . . . .
-- Bonnie Benwick
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