"It'll cure what ails you," Moe, my cab driver, told me as I returned from the market to the boat on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. "You got a backache: Eat a bowl of conch salad. You got da depression: Eat a bowl of conch salad." His hearty laugh filled the air. "And best part, here on da island, you can go al' night with da rum, you eat conch in da mornin' and you good as new."
It was these last words I remembered the next day when I found my friend Ian in his cabin, passed out yet still fully clothed with an overwhelming smell of rum emanating off him. He'd been at the casino at the Atlantis resort the night before. "Ian, wake up!" I shook him. He sat up but could barely focus. His red, swollen eyes and the disheveled brown hair that stood up on one side suggested the need for the mighty Queen conch's magical cure for hangovers.
I called Moe for help. We stepped off the boat into the bright sunlight of day. The heat slapped Ian, and he recoiled as if he'd been burned. The walk down the dock may have been the longest of my life.
Moe took us over the bridge to Potter's Cay, where multicolored wooden stands lined the road, and directed us to a whitewashed shack in the middle of the row with three bar stools outside. A hand-painted sign above the counter read, Frankie's. "He's da best." Moe whispered in my ear as if he were trading government secrets before wandering down the row of conch stands to a dominoes game being played under the shade of a banyan tree.
Frankie, a jovial Bahamian, as full of life as the local music, knew why we were there. He had Ian pegged the minute we sat down. "Whew! Man, you need a Kalik. That'll feel you better." He reached into the cooler. "You were takin' in the rum last night? Maybe talkin' to some ladies? Havin' good time." He gyrated his hips and laughed. Ian groaned. "Yeah, and now I'm here for the cure."
"You stand the heat?" Frankie raised his eyebrows. 'The hotter the better," Ian boasted. "Good, good, you jus' sit back and let Frankie take care of you." He pulled two conchs out of the ocean behind him, punctured the shell on the spiral, inserted his machete and cut the muscle. With expert precision, he grabbed the meat from the open end of the shell and with his long nimble fingers gently pulled. He sang a Bahamian tune while dicing the meat and piling it into a heaping mound on the corner of his board. His knife flew through the onions, celery and tomatoes while he sang, laughed and told us another medicinal property of conch salad.
"Around here we use it as Viagra." He winked at Ian. "One bowl of this and you be good to go all night." "I can't even think of that now," Ian moaned while dropping his head to the white tile counter. Frankie laughed as he squeezed three limes and an orange over the salad and plucked a scotch bonnet off a pile in the corner. "Jus' half a chile for the lady, but for you man, you gotta have two." There was no room for arguing in his voice. "We gonna sweat that stuff outta you." He seasoned the mix with coarse sea salt and added another squeeze of lime. He opened another Kalik for Ian and handed us two heaping Styrofoam bowls. "This give you a stiff back, my man. You be good just now." His eyes danced while his hips swung to the tune he hummed. "And tonight, you be real good."
We thanked Frankie and moved to a plastic round table. A single Kalik beer umbrella sheltered us from the piercing sun. Its intensity sent daggers through an already fragile Ian and exacerbated the smell of alcoholcoming from his pores. We dove right in. Citrus spiked my tongue. The peppers hit but did not overwhelm. There was the crunch of the celery, the softness of the tomatoes and the unmistakable taste of the sea. The ceviche - like salad was sweet and hot and cooling all at the same time. I looked over at Ian and began to worry. He had sweat coming out of his eyeballs and smelled more and more like last night's rum. The extra chiles in his seemed to be creating a sweat lodge. He sat hunched over his bowl like he was at a prison mess table. Every few minutes he let out a shuddering sigh of exhaustion. But a miracle was happening. Ten minutes earlier, he looked like death. Now, as he pushed away his empty bowl, life returned to his eyes, and a smile settled on his face. "Let's grab the tender when we get back and go water skiing." I laughed and shook my head. With just a belly full of conch and a few Kaliks under in the hot Bahamian sun, he was cured.
Rinse and dice the conch as small as possible (quarter-inch) to avoid a chewy texture. Dice the celery, onion, green pepper and tomato to the same small half-inch dice. Mince the scotch bonnet as small as possible. Add a little at a time to the conch and vegetables to establish your heat limit. Squeeze the citrus over the mix and season with sea salt. Mix well. Taste and adjust the heat by adding more scotch bonnets. If you add more citrus you will create a more piquant salad. Serve as a salad.