Conch Salad

I first tasted conch salad in Key West. Given the prevalence of conch in Key West back then, it’s possible that this area may have even been the birthplace of conch salad. It happened during a very hectic period of starting a brand, new restaurant. It was my first shot at being the “Head Chef” and my days were filled with a mixture of terror and joy.

One summer afternoon amidst the circus of all this, I felt a large shadow slowly sheathe the throbbing tropical light that flooded through the kitchen screen door at that hour. It was like when you’re in the ocean, diving, and a very large fish swims behind you. I froze.

Then came this voice. It was a booming bass sing-song with Bahamian inflections

"Hey. Hey. I'm Frank, The Conch Salad Man. I'll sell you the ‘World's Best Conch Salad’ and you can sell it to your customers".

Without knocking, he pushed open the screen door and came in holding a big, white pickle bucket brimming with his conch salad. He reached in and gave me a paper cup full. I tipped back a mixture of finely diced conch, tomatoes, red onions, scotch bonnets, bell peppers, celery, citrus juices and herbs. The flavors of the sea were in there, too. I really began to look at him now. His heavy-framed, black, saltwater-stained glasses were held on with fishing line. His hands were thick and meaty, marked from heavy labor. He wore canvas shoes, navy-issued pants and a white T-shirt. The long gold chain around his neck was his only adornment. It only drew attention to the nasty scar along his collarbones.

He pulled out another conch salad sample for each of the other cooks and waiters who were working nearby. It was then that I realized that he didn't know that I was the chef, and that I myself might be considering that I could (maybe!) make my own damn conch salad.

As I came to know him over the next few months I accepted that this notion would have never occurred to Frank. He had 1000% confidence that, once tasted, no one would accept any conch salad other than his. The truth is, I like that in a chef


I was near a small, sandwich stand in an open-air market. A radio was playing. Soft drink cans and cigarette packs lined the windows to the inside, where a lady was stuffing soft buns with meats. There was a paper napkin dispenser advertising “Coca-Cola”®. This sandwich stand happened to be in Florence, Italy.

In my hack Italian I said, “Buon giorno Signora. Due Lamprodette, per favore”.

“We Italians are absolutely crazy about these sandwiches”, my new friend Iano explained, “It is made from the stomach of the cow”.

He had lived in the United States for a number of years before returning to his native land. He had eaten classic New York pastrami sandwiches, barbequed Carolina pork and good old, All-American cheeseburgers, but this cow’s belly on a bun, which he asked me to join him in consuming, is his all-time favorite sandwich. I have to admit, I liked it very much.

That might come as a surprise to one of my former babysitters. I received e-mail recently from a girl who used to watch me when I was 5 years old and she was merely 12. She told me of a night when she fixed me a “dinner” of a “Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato” sandwich. I howled in protest! She said I refused on the grounds that a sandwich was not a proper dinner. I even “ate standing up unwilling to sit at the table”. My father came home later and consoled the poor girl and even said that I “was unreasonable sometimes about food and its presentation”.

Hell, I was just warming up!

An Englishman, who also held the title of “The Earl of Sandwich”, reportedly invented sandwiches. Apparently he was an avid card player looking for a way of conveying the foods of 19th century England to his mouth without greasing up the cards he loved playing so much. Grouse on rye with Stilton and onion and such, I imagine.

What would the Earl have thought of the Italian lamprodetta? He might have loved them. After all, he was a gambling man and it is a gutsy sandwich. Not dinner perhaps… but still very good!