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“Key West Conch” is a common phrase in the Florida Keys and Key West. The conch lives under the sea, but it means much more to our island. We’re pretty sure you’ve seen a conch shell while taking a stroll through town, captured a view under the sea while snorkeling, tasted a fritter or two, attended parties in its honor, and met a conch and didn’t even know it. Welcome to the Conch Republic. Here’s everything you need to know about the conch life in Key West, what it is, and how and why we celebrate it.
What is a Conch
Conch (konk) is a common name of several different medium-to-large-sized marine mollusks. The most well-known, the queen conch (Strombus gigas), inhabits shallow waters in the Caribbean and western Atlantic, including the Florida Keys. The meat of the queen conch is a dietary staple for many Caribbean cultures, and heavy, thick, pink-lipped conch shells are valued among collectors.
Reference to people
The queen conch has become a symbol of the Florida Keys, particularly Key West, where natives affectionately refer to themselves as "conchs." The term originates with Anglo-Bahamians who were given the moniker because the shellfish was such a prominent part of their diet. When many of these Bahamians emigrated to Key West in the 19th and 20th centuries, the term carried over.
Today, the name is so ingrained in the culture that the conch is even the Key West High School mascot, and a huge sculpture of a shell graces the campus entrance.
To distinguish between natives and non-natives, the term "Saltwater Conch" describes those born in the Keys, while "Fresh Water Conch" indicates non-natives who have resided in the Keys for at least seven years.
Shells outside the house
It is common to see conch shells displayed outside of homes in Key West and the Florida Keys. Traditionally, this was for two reasons: to indicate that a “conch” family inhabits the home or that a baby has been born. Conch shells are also displayed to bring good luck. But a conch shell is better displayed outside the house – a conch shell kept within the house will bring a storm’s rising seas inside!
Conch Shell Blowing Contest
Queen conch shells are also used as a trumpet. The annual conch shell-blowing contest is held in the garden of the Oldest House on Duval Street. Contestants test their Conch Blowing prowess by creating music with a conch shell. The Conch Blowing contest is a Key West tradition that spans 60 years. Start practicing for next year.
Photo credit: @curiostravelertv
In 1982, the US Border Patrol set up a checkpoint where the Florida Keys meet mainland Florida. There, they stopped vehicles entering the mainland for drugs and illegal immigrants. This outraged Keys residents, who felt as if the islands were being treated as a foreign nation. To protest, the Keys seceded from the US on April 23, 1982, and declared themselves the “Conch Republic.” The new “nation” quickly declared war against the United States, surrendered after one minute, the asked for one billion dollars in foreign aid.
Photo credit: Conch Republic Independence Celebration
Today, the event is remembered every April with the Conch Republic Independence Celebration, where we celebrate our FUN-dependence. Despite the secession being firmly tongue-in-cheek, many in the Florida Keys still feel their islands are quite distinct from the rest of Florida and the US.
The 41st Annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration is ten days of races, parties, food and fun scheduled for April 21-30, 2023.
Enjoy the island breeze with our Bahamian-style recipe featuring Queen Conch and homemade Key Lime mustard. Photo credit: Conch Republic Seafood CompanyOn the menu at our Key West restaurants and bars is the Conch Fritter, perfectly battered, deep fried, and loaded with fresh conch meat and spices served with various dipping sauces. Who’s got the best on the island? We’re not sure, but we love the following Historic Seaport restaurant versions - The White Tarpon, Half Shell Raw Bar, and the Conch Republic Seafood Company.
Long live the Conch Republic and cheers to conch life in Key West! #lovethemarker
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