On the Road: Vanishing Conch in the Florida Keys

Conch "basically has no taste"

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By David Hammond

When Carolyn and I drove through the Keys in the late 70s, we saw roadside stands all over these domestic tropical islands selling conch shells. We ate conch, right out of the Gulf or the Atlantic, several times.

But conch is no longer harvested in the Keys, at least not legally (and maybe not much illegally, as it's in short supply). Most of the conch that's served in restaurants in the Keys comes from farms in the Turks and Caicos or Bahamas.

That's rather odd, as the Keys, and Key West in particular, are part of the self-proclaimed Conch Republic.

Residents (at least those who've been living in the Keys seven years or more) refer to themselves as "Conchs."

The prototypical Key West domicile is called a Conch House (wood, front porch, little ornamentation, sometimes a metal roof…which may have inspired the title for Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – the playwright was a Conch)

But there's no conch in restaurants in the Keys unless it comes from elsewhere.

On the first night of a press trip in the Keys, I had conch fritters at The Conch House in Key Largo. The fritters were pretty good. It's hard to discern, though, the flavor of the seafood when it's minced up, mixed with a lot of breading, and drizzled with mustard sauce.

The last night I was in Key West, I ate a conch fritters as well as steak at a place called Hogfish Bar and Grill. Hogfish is owned by Bobbie Mongelli, who said, quite candidly, "conch basically has no taste." However, when it's covered in a seasoned breading and lightly fried, it's pretty good. Not great, but good. As a steak, it's more apparent what this meat is actually like.

So what's it actually like?

Conch It has a taste somewhat like scallop or shrimp, but it lacks the distinctive seafood flavors of eithers. The last time I had conch, or scungilli, was at Umberto's Clam House in Lower Manhattan where, in the early 70s, between seafood courses, Joey Gallo died of lead poisoning. My scungilli was covered with tasty red sauce, which helped a lot.

Conch is also rather tender/tough: it can be cut with a fork in some places, but in others, you'll struggle with a knife.

"You have to pound it," said Mongelli, "and then fry it very soon after that, or it tightens up and gets tough."

I've never seen conch on a local Chicagoland menu. I can't imagine why a restaurant would make much of an effort to get it in. Mongelli is right: it doesn't taste like much. In the Keys, though, conch is undeniably a sentimental favorite.

"Whenever I go out to eat," said Mongelli,"if they have it on the menu, conch is what I order."

It's not what I would always order when I go out, but when I go to the Keys, I order conch every chance I get. Seems like the patriotic thing to do in the Conch Republic. 

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