The use of the term “conch” can be confusing for visitors of Key West because on the island, it’s not just a fritter on your plate or queen beneath the sea… it’s a person, too. Allow us to explain.
A conch is a large sea snail that lives in the depths of Caribbean waters. In the Florida Keys, the more common and identifiable species of sea snail is the queen conch. Snorkelers and divers will frequently spot these beautiful creatures situated on the ocean floor. The outer shell of a queen conch is white and tan, and often covered in algae. If you flip it over, you’ll see a beautiful combination of bright pinks and whites.
Now let’s head to the dinner table, where this sea slug turns into a deliciously fried fritter that is a favorite of both locals and visitors. If done a certain way, the meat of a conch can be removed without damaging its magnificent shell. Once the meat has been extracted, it can prepared a few different ways, not just fried. Many enjoy it in chowder, ceviche or sushi style. However, one thing remains consistent….when it comes to conch, we aren’t picky, and no matter how it’s prepared, we won’t complain!
Now here’s where things get tricky. We’ve used the term conch to describe a sea creature and a delectable dishes, but now we will use the term to describe a human (and no, they do not live underwater or are fried like a fritter). In the late 1800s, Bohemian immigrants in the Florida Keys were nicknamed “conchs”. By the 1900s, Key West was occupied by a large population of Bohemian descendants. Over the years, residents of Key West started calling themselves “Key West Conchs” as well. Today, anyone who was born in Key West is considered a “Saltwater Conch” while long-term residents are called a “Freshwater Conch”.
In 1982, the U.S. government set up a blockade at the entrance of the main highway going into the Florida Keys. Visitors and residents were required to provide proof of U.S. citizenship before being able to pass. The mayor of Key West threatened the Federal court with succession from the Union as the Conch Republic. The issue was quickly resolve, but since that day, Key West has been referred to as the Conch Republic.
So there you have it, three different meanings of the phrase “Key West Conch”. Now the next time you’re asked what a conch is, you can offer up some impressive trivia!
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