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Monday, November 19, 2012

No. 116 Roasting Conchs


In early Spring and late fall the waters of Back Sound can sometimes be as clear as glass. A    combination of lower temperatures and calming winds combine to remove whatever it is that makes the water so thick the rest of the year.

Besides offering a pristine view of the sandy bottom, the clear cool water allowed us to see the conchs [and welks] that hide in the grass lumps that dotted the tide line. With nothing more than a skiff and an ore, my brother and I would scour the bottom from David’s dock to Billy Hamilton’s landing. When we were lucky, we would see one or more, and sometimes as many as a dozen conchs nestled among the swaying sea grass. One of us would hold the skiff steady while the other would lean over and reach for the conch.

One thing about the clear water that we sometimes lost sight of was that it could be a magnifying lens, distorting how deep the water under us really was. Sometimes we would lean, and then stretch farther than we had expected, finally reaching so far that our rolled-up shirt sleeve would get wet all the way to our shoulder. Other times the cool clear water would reach to our neck and hairline, but in spite of that we never gave up or pulled back until we had that conch firmly in our grasp.
A live conch washed up on the shore at flood tide

Once we had gathered all we could find, we would hurry home to enjoy what we had taken. Sometimes that meant “beating them out” so Mama could stew them for us and the whole family. But other times, especially when the weather was bright and sunny, we would cook them ourselves.

That meant roasting them over an open fire. This required gathering sticks or tearing apart fish boxes to use for kindling. Believe it or not, we sometimes made our fodder from old wooden decoys that Edith’s Darrel (Willis) had thrown behind his old shed. Once the flames were burning, we would drop our catch into the flame and watch them as they began to sizzle. We could soon hear them “popping” as the outer shell began to crack in the searing heat. After a few minutes we would begin to poke and probe the smaller oval and outer shell that protects the living conch as it withdraws into the hollow of the bigger shell. We had learned from experience that when the oval shell falls off, the conch is ready to eat.

Then would begin the most delicate part of our operation; pulling the white hot conch out of the fire and dropping it into a bucket of fresh water we had pumped from a shallow well. Once it had cooled enough to be handled, the fleshy core could be pulled out and was ready to clean — that is if we had correctly determined that the conch was fully cooked. If in our haste we had jumped the gun, it would require using a hammer to break open what was left.

Almost all of a roasted conch could be eaten, even the “cheese” that was nestled in the point of the cone. Only a small gut on the inside of the muscle was usually discarded.  Once that was done, and what was left was washed off one final time, we would begin to tear off chunks of the meat to savor and enjoy.

One thing about roasted conchs that made them even better than stewed ones for some of us was that they were so very “tough” that every bite you took could take minutes to chew on and swallow. The longer that took, the longer you had to taste and enjoy it. And the happier you were that you had gone to the trouble of doing the whole thing in the first place.

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