The Case for Conch
In the classic novel Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, there is a scene where the young boys assemble in a place they call castle rock to hold a meeting. Ralph exclaims, “I’m holding the conch!” The conch shell symbolizes political power and only the person who is holding it is allowed to speak.
The conch shell has been used in battle as a bugle. When blown properly, it belts out a resounding trumpet-like blast. Mariners have used them for centuries to signal other boats, and United States Marines give their commanders a giant conch shell as a sign of respect. In the epic Indian tale, The Mahabharata, a conch shell known as “Devadatta” was blown to send fear into the heart of the enemy. Buddhist temples have long used the conch shell to signal a religious assembly, and it is believed that an image of the conch will appear on the hands and feet of a holy person. There has always been something magical and powerful attributed to the conch.
You’ll find conch (rhymes with honk, not haunch) in cuisines from around the globe. It’s an important food source in the Caribbean Islands where it is used in raw in salads, and cooked in curries, stews and chowders. In Panama and Puerto Rico, it is cured in lime juice and served as ceviche. In Asia, conch is sliced thin and served stir-fried or steamed. Italians serve “scungilli” in chilled seafood salad as part of the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. Here people are more familiar with the conch fritter, especially in the south. In Atlanta, there’s even a restaurant called “The Conch Fritter King.” In a good season of conching on the Cape, it’s common for the boats to bring in over a thousand pounds a day during peak times. So why doesn’t conch appear on menus in our area?
Spring always marks the beginning of another great season on Cape Cod. Restaurants open, crocus bloom, and people start planting their vegetable gardens. For me, as a commercial fisherman in Chatham, spring is always ushered in by a flurry of activity at the harbor. Moorings are set and boats begin to appear on what was just a month before a desolate, frigid waterfront. Fishermen are getting back to work after a long, icy winter.
One day, as we were loading our nets on the boat, a big flatbed truck rolled up with about a hundred small wooden boxes on the back. I’m always interested in what other fishermen do out there on Nantucket Sound, as there are a variety of fisheries that take place right in our backyard, so when I had a break, I walked over to talk to the driver, who happened to be the captain of a conch boat. “We’re setting our gear tomorrow,” he said. All those boxes were conch “pots.” He explained that conch pots come partially made, but you have to add the concrete blocks that weigh them down on the ocean floor. They have a simple but effective design. Bait is put inside to attract the conch. The top of the box is open. The conch, which is a large sea snail, climbs up the side, over the overhanging lip of the box, and falls inside, where it can’t escape.
Conch fishermen generally check all their traps every day during the peak season, which is happening right now. Typically, it takes ten hours to finish the day, as many of these fishermen go out by themselves. Water temperatures are just right for the conch during the spring. Once the water warms up, conch landings drop off for a while, and pick back up in the fall.
I had my first experience of eating conch last fall. A good friend, Michele Mesmain, came over from France to visit for a few days. She is the director of Slow Fish International and is a tireless advocate for small fisheries globally. She is also very passionate about all good food. I had planned a big seafood dinner with freshly dug quahogs and steamers, roasted mackerel and fluke ceviche. However, as Michele unpacked her small bag, she pulled out a small case and placed it delicately on the counter. She opened it and pulled out a set of razorsharp kitchen knives.
“I am making a scungilli salad tonight!” Michele exclaimed. Having never tasted conch, I thought to myself, “Scungilli, eh? I don’t know about that.” But I exclaimed, “Oh, wonderful!”, feigning enthusiasm. However, this was an opportunity to try something new from a masterful chef. About two hours later we all sat down to try her scungilli salad. It was unbelievably delicious. The flavors were delicate, and the conch itself was tender and succulent, with a clam-like flavor. I suddenly realized why conch was in such demand in many cultures; the secret is knowing how to prepare it properly. The conch must be soaked in salt water for at least three hours to flush out any sand. Michele then steams the conch in the shell with one cup of white wine and one cup of water for ten minutes. After it has cooled, she extracts the meat, slicing off the dark outer skin from the muscle, which is the only part of the conch that is edible.
Back at the docks, I asked the various conch boat captains whom they sell their catch to, and where it goes. One captain said, “A truck picks it up and then it goes to New Bedford. After that, I don’t know where it goes.” Another stated, “It all goes to Asian markets. They pay big money for it. It’s a delicacy over there.” Both men seemed slightly disappointed that none of their catch is sold locally. Apparently, people have never tried something on the level of Michele’s scungilli salad around here. If they had, it would be on more menus.
There are about 95 conch fishermen on the Cape. During the season, they bring in anywhere from 200 to 500 pounds each day. There would be more boats conching, but in 1990 a moratorium was placed on the fishery, and no new licenses can be issued. The only way to get one is to buy it from someone who is actively landing conch with his or her permit. If the permit hasn’t been used in the past five years, it is no longer valid, and disappears forever. This was done to protect the population in state waters from being over fished. Conch permits are, as a result, valuable and hard to come by. Many of the men who fish for conch bought permits some twenty years ago, when the cod fishing industry was in a steep decline. They had to diversify their fishery to make it through the year.
Every once in a while a conch will make its way into our weirs, and it always makes me reminisce about that delicious scungilli salad Michele made. Do yourself a favor: go down to the local dock and ask who is bringing in conch, then try one of the recipes on the opposite page. It’s your turn to hold the conch!
Russell Kingman fishes the Eldredge family weirs in Nantucket Sound, helps run Cape Cod Community Supported Fishery, and is an independent wild shellfish harvester in Chatham.