Say the word “conch” to most people around the world and they immediately picture a tuneful curvaceous mollusk. In the Florida Keys however, it also describes a unique and vibrant culture and an island cuisine that has emerged from a literal melting pot of tastes and legacies. The Conch culture and its flavors will be celebrated on Saturday, August 27 from 6:30-9:30 pm at Fort East Martello in Key West, at the Conch Revival Picnic presented by The Key West Art & Historical Society and Isle Cook Key West.
A peek inside Nancy Mariscal-Howanitz’s Key West home offers a savory view into the tradition of Conch Cuisine. She stands over the oven in her midtown kitchen, tending to three steaming pots while her sister-in-law Robin Henderson and colleague Holly Gerich laugh and sip wine by her side. It’s a pretty standard ritual; for the last six months, the group has taken on the task of helping Henderson’s husband and his crew of naval air station firefighters modify their cholesterol and sugar intake.
Tonight’s menu? Pollo Frito and green beans infused with cubed ham and bacon, mushrooms, oregano, red onion, garlic, bay leaf, and salt and pepper, served with key limes from her garden. The ingredients cost about $20 and will stretch to serve about ten people.
“It’s all from scratch, all very fresh, and affordable,” says Mariscal-Howanitz. “It goes far.”
Mariscal-Howanitz, an eighth generation Conch in the Knowles, Sands and Saunders lineage related to “every Conch you can imagine,” learned to cook from both of her grandmothers, absorbing a combination of cultures in her “lessons,” mostly from that of the Spanish and the South. Her mother was a single parent with three jobs and four kids, says Nancy.
“Cooking was a necessity first, then a passion,” she says.
Mariscal-Howanitz learned young to make the Conch classics: moyettes, oxtail, grunts and grits, fried fish and lobster, conch chowder, chicken soup, rice pudding, and for special occasions, the Queen of all Puddings. Like only food can, these things evoke a sense of time and place, a nostalgia that makes you yearn for more.
“You know what I miss?” she says. “Johnnycakes. If you don’t know what a johnnycake is then you don’t know what Conch food is. It’s like a biscuit gone wild.”
Mariscal-Howanitz is a shining example of the edible heritage found here in the Florida Keys, which will be celebrated at the Conch Revival Picnic— a heritage dinner presented by The Key West Art & Historical Society and Isle Cook Key West, a first time event cooked up by Martha Hubbard, Culinary Curator of Isle Cook Key West, who has joined forces with several other acclaimed chefs in order to increase awareness of Key West and Conch culture by preserving and promoting their historic recipes.
Hubbard and chef-colleague’s Dave Furman, Executive Chef and Owner, Great Events Catering; Martin Liz, The Lost Kitchen Supper Club; Doug Shook, Executive Chef, Louie’s Backyard; and chef/distiller Paul Menta will prepare a variety of these classics, including bollos (black eye pea fritters), alligator pear (avocado salad), mollette (Cuban bread stuffed with picadillo), chilao (lobster enchilada with corn meal), conch chowder and salad, whole pig and fish roast, guava duff, and Queen of all pudding. Some of the recipes are inspired by the postwar Key West Woman’s Club Cookbook edited by original Conch and first Florida Keys woman mayor Wilhelmina Harvey, as well as recipes from other books located in the Key West Public Library collection.
In addition to the dinner, there will be chef-tastings of recipes prepared in the kitchens of several local Conch families, including Mariscal-Howanitz’s offering, and attendees can enjoy classic conch games like bocce and dominoes.
Sponsored by in part by Great Events, Southernmost Boccee, Wonderdog Productions, and Shipyard Brewing Company, proceeds for the event will benefit The Society. Tickets for the event are $35 per person and can be purchased at kwahs.org or at the door. For more information call Shawn Cowles, Society Operations Manager at 305.295.6616 x 111. Your Museums. Your Community. It takes an Island.