Brian Antoni travels back to his Island Childhood
I am sitting on the dock, starring at the endless aquamarine water, waiting for the annual conch cracking contest to begin. I'm gorging myself on conch fritters, conch salad, conch burgers, scorched conch, washing it down with a cup of conch chowderr. In other words, i'm in conch heaven. I'm in the Bahamas.
The queeen conch (Strombus gigas-Gigantic spiral shell) pronounced "konk", is a large marine mollusk known for its spectacular, graceful shell with flaring, glossy, bright pink lip.
When Columbus discovered The Bahamas and the New World, he introduced the queen conch to the old. Queen conch shells decorated Victorian mantles and evn edged many English garden paths by the 17th century. The shells are also carved into cameos and ground down to make a high quality porcelain. In addition, the conch produces a rare pink pearl which can be worth a fortune. Conch shells can also be turned into trumpets. But, best of all, the meat of the conch is very tasty.
Soca music plays in the background, conpeting with the calls from Dr. Conch's food emporium booth (where Dr. Conch is singing, "We's got scorched conch, stew conch, conch salad,too; cracked conch, conch fritter, just to name a few") and the twack! of machete hitting coconut at Mr. Nut's Coconut booth (where Mr. Nut himself yells, "Try a nut and yu will see, how juicy someone's nuts can be!")
The sun burns bright and hot, and as sweat forms on my body, I dive into the cool ocean and think about growing up on this island. Every year I leave my new island home, Manhattan, and fly back here for the conch cracking contest. I remember coming to this village twice a month with my father, Doc Robert Antoni, the island's only doctor. An image flashes into my head as I squint behind my sunglasses, a group of boys, all of them black but me, all of us standing barefoot in the noon sun, on the tar of the one paved road as hot and soft as the inside of a baked potato. I fight the pain to prove I'm as strong as the others. Later, at home, nanny Evalina sucked her breath: "You can't learn that withey feet soft and not hard like black feet?" Then Evaline went into the bush and found an aloe plant. "She split it and rubbed the jelly on my feet and gave me a spoonful of conch tonic; conch juice mixed with eggs and rum, with some grated coconut floating on top. As the pain in my feet went away, I begged for another spoonful. "No, boy," Evalina said "Too much of this make you mannish!"
The first time I ever cracked a conch was at Crispy Squash Cay. I was about seven years old, sitting on the dock with my best friend Jaime, when Dr. Conch sailed up. "I got a surprise for you scoundrel pirates", he said. "There be a time in every mon life where he best learn what to do with his conch!" Dr. Conch was the only one ever to win the conch cracking contest four times. The last time he was so old that his hands shook-until he grabbed the conch hammer.
Dr. Conch gave each of us a conch hammer, a thin-bladed knife, and a conch. "Men, see this space?" he asked, pointing between the second and third row of nodes on the spire of the shell. "now pound she good, then crack she a little. Now, take your knife and juck it, slide it back an' forth, up and down, 'till you feel it."
"Feel what?" I asked
"The hard little spot, that be the one where she connect, with the main feelings, where she muscle be attached to she shell. Juck it good, boys, 'cause she don't want to come out an' see your ugly face. Now turn she over." Dr. Conch's conch came sliding, sliming out of its shell. Jaime and I turned our shells. Nothing.
The contest is about to begin as I walk out of the water and squeeze into the crowd around the stage. Everyone is laughing, yelling, drinking rum, swaying to the Bahama beat. Each of the 16 contestants, chooses his conch fromn a pile on the stage, searching for those with the thinnest, easier-to-crack shells. Two men grab the same conch.
Sooon, all the contestants are ready. The music stops. The crowd quiets. Silence. the starting gun blasts. Hammer pounds against shell. A blizzard of conch slop and shell pieces fly. Knives flash in the sunlight as blades penetrate shell holes. It's impossible to tell who is winning. Edmund and Patrick, father and son, are cracking, conch for conch. The older people yell for Edmund. The youngsters cheer for Patrick, in the final stage, they cut away the guts until all that is left of the conch is the alabaster white meat. Finally, Patrick wins, beating his father by one conch, and dances around the stage, the winning conch held high. Edmund sits down, breathing heavily, saying "Another case of student beating teacher. I does teach that false ripe boy of mine too well."
I came back for the conch," I answer
"Boy, you looking soft and pale," Jaime says handing me a bottle of rum. "What you been eating?"
"Lots of arugula and bran."
"What?" he asks, frowning for a moment. Then he grabs a piece of conch and crams it into my mouth.
I chew, as I recall the two of us on the dock practicing cracking conch as the fishermen laughed.
"Why you smiling?" Jaime asks.
"Because," I say, "I'm home."