The Real Conch Republic
When we were in the Florida Keys we learned that Key West, and the Keys in general, like to refer to themselves as the “Conch Republic”. There are symbols everywhere featuring the beutiful conch shells, but because of their popularity, there are almost none left anywhere in the Keys. The only place we saw any was in the Dry Tortugas. You can buy the shells as Key West souvenirs in lots of shops, and guess where they all come from? The Bahamas! The Bahamas should be the place called the Conch Republic — they are everywhere here. I never thought I would see so many of these beautiful shells just lying around.
In case you aren’t familiar with the Conch, it is a large spiral shell that has a snail like creature living inside. They are popular to eat, although some people (including me) think they are a bit tough and chewy. One of the most common things to make out of them is conch fritters. It is notoriously difficult to get the meat out of the shell without completely smashing the whole shell. Usually, a small hole is punched in the top of the shell and then a knife is inserted through the hole to loosen the attachment of the conch inside the shell. Then the whole slimy thing comes sliding out the open ended part of the shell. Sometimes the shells are then patched up, polished and made into horns and sold to places like Key West where sucker tourists like us will pay $16 for them. Here in Andros the common practice is to toss the empty shells on the beach. There are gigantic graveyards of conch, hundreds of them laying in piles all along the waterfront.
Here at the local bar called “Willy’s Water Bar”, a guy named Gogi makes a delicious conch salad. It is basically like ceviche but with conch instead of shrimp or other raw fish. He mixes peppers, onions, lemon juice and other special sauce ingredients with a fresh, finely chopped conch. He makes it to order right there at a table outside the bar and you can watch him take out and prepare one conch for each salad that is ordered.
One other weird note about food — Andros supplies the Bahamas with vegetables, and one of their main exports is onions. (although I don’t really understand how they grow onions with the tiny amount of soil that is here) Right now is the onion harvest and there is an absurd abundance of onions everywhere. When Christopher took us to the vegetable packing plant there where whole buildings filled with onions. They are kind of like zucchinis in the summer in the North — you can’t even give them away, and people resort to sneaky tactics like leaving them on peoples doorsteps in the middle of the night to get rid of them. Christopher had huge bags of onions in the back of his jeep, and when we got back to the harbor he was pushing them on us. “Just take them, mon!! All of them” None of us needed that many onions, but somehow we ended up in our dinghy with enough onions to last us a year.