You could say the story of cracked conch begins with a romance. Calliope Simeon met Alexander Maillis when she was 13, living in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Born in The Bahamas, Alexander was a paratrooper in the US Army during WWII. Their families had long been connected, going way back to the island of Kalymnos in Greece. All the Kalymnians made a living off the Mediterranean, until the sponge beds, yielding less and less, pushed them into the Atlantic Ocean. They settled in Cuba, Florida and The Bahamas, continuing and expanding their dominance of the sea sponge industry.
This Kalymnian connection was the foundation for Alexander’s visit with Calliope’s family in 1943. After the war he came back to see his brother, who also lived in Tarpon Springs. Calliope and Alexander re-connected and were married. In 1949 Alexander brought Calliope home to Nassau, and fate set the wheels in motion for Bahamians’ beloved cracked conch.
Fast forward to August 1953. According to the church calendar all observant Greek Orthodox, Calliope and Alexander included, are fasting. They can’t have meat for two weeks, but seafood is acceptable, and they are eating a lot of conch. They’re spending time in Harbour Island, and Calliope’s mum is there too. She voices what everyone is likely wondering: is there something else we can do with this conch besides stewing it? More specifically, can it be fried?
Any Bahamian will tell you conch is tough, and that’s what Alexander says. But he is also willing to experiment. With no specific tenderising tool, he grabs a glass bottle and beats the marine mollusk. Then they dip it in eggs, dredge it in flour, and deep fry it. Success!
Now, how do we go from a family’s personal dining triumph to a nationally hallowed dish? How do I even know all of this to begin with? We’ll get there, but first a little context for the uninitiated.
Cracked conch exists somewhere between fried calamari and chicken tenders. It’s battered, but with just enough salt and no black pepper or spices to overwhelm the conch’s flavour. If you get it from a take-away they’ll serve it with ketchup and hot sauce. Restaurants nudge the plate forward with wedges of lime. Fries are non-negotiable. Done right, your experience will be lightly crunchy, firm, savoury, sweet, spicy and tangy.
Plenty of college students and expats home on holiday go straight for a conch snack – cracked conch with fries – before they even settle themselves on New Providence (or whichever island they live on). I’m talking touch down at LPIA and drive to Bamboo Shack with suitcases still in the car, before they’ve even hailed their grammy. Or better yet, have whoever is picking them up bring the conch snack and a Vita Malt to the airport, so they can eat it in the car en route to grammy.
Conch is a staple food in The Bahamas, and ‘cracking’ is one of the most popular ways it’s prepared. Plenty of people have to have cracked conch on a weekly basis, and not just from anywhere, but that one spot they believe does it the best. It’s a dish we take for granted, another thing we point to that makes us Bahamian. I didn’t think there was a way to be at all specific about where it came from, so you can imagine my delight the day I learned it has a very clear origin story.
A school friend posted a picture of his Yiayia Calliope on Instagram. She was in an apron in a kitchen, sitting in front of a dish of cracked conch that she had obviously just fried. My friend’s caption said his yiayia and her mother were the first to make cracked conch. I was like – What?! – and messaged him to ask if I could meet her. This led to an interview with Mrs. Maillis, a modest, soft spoken woman now 90, unconcerned with receiving any credit or recognition for her part in our nation’s enduring obsession.
We met at the family law firm, which she helped her husband develop and where she still goes to work. Sitting across from me at her desk Mrs. Maillis continued her story, “So when we came back to New Providence (from Harbour Island) he bought a beater, proper beater, and smashed the conch and then rolled it in cracker meal, rather than just flour. Egg and cracker meal, and fried it. And it became very popular and he gave it the name cracked conch.”
Guests at the Maillis’ Imperial Hotel were the first outside the family to try their creation. Mrs. Maillis explained that the Imperial “was our old home, until my father-in-law died. My mother-in-law had to survive, so she turned part of the old home into a restaurant and a bar. And they served Bahamian meals.”
Mrs. Maillis’ eldest son Pericles was in and out during our interview, and at that point he walked by with, ” You and paps showed Lila and the kitchen staff at the Imperial how to do it. And they started doing it and it was a sensation! And within four days the recipe had been bribed out of ‘em and was being used next door, in my father’s brother’s establishment [the Esquire Liquor Store and Lounge].”
Once the recipe left the kitchen of the Imperial it spread across the islands like wildfire, gaining and retaining the popularity that it enjoys today. Nothing much has changed, although flour is the default dredging ingredient over cracker meal. Mrs. Maillis’ granddaughter, also Calliope, was sitting nearby, and she explained that in the south, where “my grandmother…was born [and] where her mom was from,” frying chicken “and things like that in cracker meal would have been a fairly common thing.” This influenced the decision to standardise the recipe with cracker meal, and also the way food was fried in The Bahamas in general. Today, cracker meal is not nearly as easily accessible as flour, which might account for the change.
So what if you want to make cracked conch the way everyone ate it in the early days? The ‘recipe’ is exceedingly simple, probably also due to the fact that Maillises wouldn’t have had much to work with on those Harbour Island days. Tenderise your conch, sprinkle it with salt, dip it in beaten eggs, dredge it in cracker meal, and deep fry in vegetable oil until lightly golden. Since you’ve already got a deep fryer going, why not throw some fries in there too? Serve with ketchup, hot sauce, and lime wedges. Enjoy, and maybe thank providence for the unique set of events that came together to make the dish possible: the sea sponge industry, WWII and a great migration. Have a kind thought for Mrs. Maillis too, who continues to eat her cracked conch the same way.