This gets a bit gruesome--think dinner meets biology lab dissection table--so if you don't like the idea of taking life to give life, especially shelled mollusk life, then better stop now.
So I go to the fish stand at the market, and I see "Conch," and I see they cost 2.25 a lb. Why is this, I wonder, to the nice lady behind the counter?
They're mostly shell.
You want one?
I'm intrigued by them, yeah....Yeah alright. Let me have a good sized one.
She opens one of the big coolers labeled "catch".
This one's wide open--look at that! And she shows me how it's, uh, moving, like a giant marine snail with a pointy I can hear the ocean shell, along the wall of the cooler. The body is grey and the muscular foot looks like an elephant's knee.
Holy crap, I think, as she's bagging it up and I'm giving her the money. What have I gotten myself into?
Olivia, thankfully, has worked with these before. She clues me into the second reason they're so cheap:
Because they're a pain in the ASS to prep. (By prep, of course, I mean, getting the freaking thing out of the shell and getting to the parts you can actually digest after cooking up.)
Not one to be easily scared off, and ever vigilant and intrepid, I do what I always do when I'm at home, alone, and don't know what the crap to do: I log on to the internet! There I get "tips" from many helpful Bahamians, among others, talking about how to go about this thing. Awesome! I think. Nothing can go wrong now! And I commence to pawing around the junk drawer, hell bent on a hammer.
Hammer in hand, I'm off to the cutting board. This thing is fairly big--I mean, it's a normal-sized conch shell, the icon of a tropical beach, except this one isn't brightly colored, has barnacles growing on it, and is nowhere near empty. It smells great--like the wet wood of a pier. I get it out of the water, watch as the foot retreats into the shell, and...oh shit! Is that actual conch poo in the water?! It is. The thing is doing life functions--there's a streamy strand of, uh, refuse, floating around in the water. These things are a bit more complex than clams or mussels or even oysters, which I've hurt myself shucking but beyond that haven't gotten much into fluids of any sort.
At this point, hammer raised, I have a pause to consider, that cityboy meets the wild moment of, uh, can I do this? Do I want to do this even? I think about how in the "tips" they explain to cut off the "head" (you'll know it from the eyestalk) as well as both the orange "skirt" of the mantle--the thing that secretes the shell, incidentally--and the thick intestine toward the bottom. These things whitewater rush into my foreconscious, sending off a fine misty spray of doubts. But I've bought the thing, and what I'm gonna do, set it free? Go out the back door, lay it in the grass, and say, run little conchie, go to your home, your native place! Or maybe take the subway with it cradled in my lap down to coney island and toss it into the tideline when horace the magic horseshoe crab whose suddenly appeared to assist me in the matter gives the thumbs up and a dashing wink (then we ramble down to the nathan's stand and get two with kraut and mustard, sharing a lemonade between us with two straws).
I shake my head clear. No, no, no! This is meat, and I really wanna know what kind of meat it is, what it tastes like (turns out either I wasn't around or don't remember when Olivia prepared conch the first time--and her last time). Plus I'm getting hungry, and hunger does things to you, or me at least. I get more single-minded, especially when the first instruction on the "tips" is to bash a hole between the second a third ring from the top. I think just about that first step, and I locate what I think is the right spot, and I just go in, making sure I have the paring knife ready once the puncture is made and I have to cut the top muscle from the shell.
I make an exploratory tap, then whack at it. Nothing. I get absolutely nowhere. The shell mocks me. And then I get it, then second gear of my carnivore reptilian mind kicks in. I get mad. I want the MEAT. I whack it two, three more times, harder, without hesitation, actually enjoying the challenge and seeing this not as a puzzle but as a moment where somebody's gotta win and somebody's gotta lose, and I've got a wicked genetic advantage I intent to exploit. Can't help it--I'll admit, I swaggered my cerebral cortex, my ability to acquire and use tools, and I felt GOOD when the shell cracked.
I felt less good when I poked the paring knife in to cut the shell away. The "tips" told me that if you feel soft tissue, you're too low, into the muscle itself, and you need to make a higher hole. Guess what I felt with the knife? What they don't give you a "tip" for is how the hell to make another hole once you've already got one, since subsequent bashing yielded only a long radial crack and then exposure of, you guessed it, more and more flesh. So then I thought, why not just wedge the knife in close, up tight, and pray up with it, kind of, until I can separate the muscle from the shell? My backup plan by this point was simply to cut my losses, literally, and sever the flesh at the exposed point and surrender whatever was above it to the scrapheap.
then it happened, then I felt the remorse of the sloppy first-time hunter. My knife hit something weird, then all of a sudden a bunch of, well, crap, exploded propulsively onto my fingers of the knife hand. Slimy entrailic stuff was everywhere, and leaking more each moment. My backup plan came full force to the fore, and I sawed and sliced until the flesh was rent, then yanked my heart out on the bottom foot--the scene looked like a jaws of life in a stock car evacuation in miniature. The whole mass of flesh slowly and with sucking sounds uncoiled from the winding chamber of the shell, and into my hand, so I fished out what was left of the, uh, head and organs I had, uh, stabbed. I had grainy diarrhea, more or less, dripping off my hands.
Lemme tell you, when they say between the second and third ring, don't overthink it, don't wonder if the first one counts. It does, idiot. Just start there and count to two. When you get to two, split the difference to the next one, take aim, and whack. Anything else is bad form.
I felt ashamed. I felt stupid. I felt like an asshole. I wanted to respect the animal's life I was taking and I didn't, and I realized that it wasn't killing I had a problem with, it was killing that acted as though the pain threshold or otherwise life functions of the animal being killed doesn't matter. It's not respecting the fact that the animal is alive in the act of killing that bothers me, which is why I'm off the slaughterhouse pork, beef, chicken, and turkey. Treating animals like Ford F-150s awaiting assembly, whether they know they're about to die sitting on that conveyor belt or not, doesn't work for me. It's up to each person to make up their own mind on the matter--guys in slaughterhouses claim the cows, for instance, have no idea the gun is coming to the forehead, even instants before it's their turn, but these guys also admit there are some wrigglers on the hook, some carcasses that aren't dead yet, yet have been strung up by their back legs, their throats cut and bleeding. Proof this is a human system, with living things, and thus imperfect--it is NOT a well-oiled machine, especially at the pace and volume at which these slaughterhouses now work. More on that later.
So I had my moment of remorse, realized I could hunt if I was a good shot, and with some practice, acknowledged the thing was dead now, and went on with the business of doing a better job getting to the meat than I had turning the conch INTO meat. I was really good at this part, I'm proud to say (I've taken more than my fair share of college biology classes, which helped in a number of ways). I found the intestine, excised, sawed the solid part of the bottom of the foot off, cleaned up the remaining entrails from the top part of the foot, and did the hardest part--peeling away the tough outer grayish skin to get to the melon colored edible flesh underneath--with great pizazz and elan. Once something's dead I'm a sangfroid motherfucker.
Anyway, once it was all said and done, the shell tossed, the cutting board cleaned up, I had about a half cup of meat left (the conch with shell was maybe eight inched top to foot).
I am not doing this again, I told Olivia, who was now home.
I know it. That's what I thought too when I did it. It's just not worth it.
So I also got a lesson in waste.
Although I will say this: I grilled each side a minute after pounding the crap out of it with teh same hammer (this time protected by plastic wrap), which was another trial, then chopped the grilled pieces up and threw them in tupperware with the juice of a lemon, some chopped up spring onion and garlic and a good heap of diced fennel fronds, let it marinate for about half an hour, then hit it with a little olive oil and turned the whole thing out on a bed of sliced cucumber and radish (I had no lettuce or else I would have had that in the middle) with some grilled baby fennel, and it was pretty damned good, tell you what. Tastes like a cross between clam and scallop, if you're into those two critters.
6 days ago