“They call me Peanut!” he said through stretched lips. Only he didn’t just say it like in sentence form. He sang it, mouthing the syllables slowly, assigning each one a different note, and drawing out the “Peeaaaa-” in “Peanut.” “Peanut,” I said to confirm, “I’m Brooke.” We didn’t extend hands since his were covered in conch slime, instead, we offered head nods to each other and he told me about his favorite niece, also named Brooke, while swiftly slicing the googley eyeballs off a conch with the single pull of a knife.
As we stood on the dock outside of Stuart’s Conch Stand in Bimini, Peanut working his way through shell after shell after shell of Bahamian Queen Conch, I found myself mesmerized by the ease and rapidity with which he worked. The swing of a rock hammer here, a few flicks of the wrist there. The conch flew out of one bucket, the meat was hurled into a separate bucket, and the occupant-evicted shells were tossed back into crystalline water. The gap between sea water and the dock below us was several feet wide and most of it was already filled. Not with air but with mounds of those emptied conch shells, thousands of them, likely tossed in by Peanut and the conch cleaners who had worked at Stuart’s before him.
Stuart’s, we learned on arrival, was one of the many beachside stands on the island that served the Bahamian staple, conch salad. Fresh, salty conch meat, chopped roughly with a machete and tossed with cubes of finely diced green bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes. It’s hit with a lot of lime juice and a little bit of orange juice, both squeezed fresh, and tossed again. There are some extras that can be added to the salad, or not, depending on the makers’ tastes: a sprinkle of garlic salt for seasoning, a little extra diced habanero for spice, or maybe a dollop of mayonnaise for fat to round it out. But all of that aside, the secret to the best conch salad–according to taxi drivers and immigrations officials and fellow sailors alike–lies not in the extras and its one that Stuart has long since perfected.
You see, when it comes down to it, conch salad in the Bahamas is like made-from-scatch pasta in Italy. You can box it up and you can freeze it; you can manipulate the ratios and some of the ingredients. But there’s nothing that can compare to the tender chew and delicate brine of conch salad made with mollosk pulled straight from the sea.
Chop the conch meat fresh from the water. Serve it just after its eye stalks have ceased to google.
That’s where Peanut–a hammer-swinging, Vitamalt-slinging, American-pop-culture-loving expert of cleaning conch–comes in.
Peanut pounded into a shell, blasting a hole about a quarter of the way down its side with a single swing of his rock hammer. He pulled the meat from the shell, he sang some Whitney Houston, and then he pushed the conch’s long meandering eye stalks towards me and said, “Here’s lookin’ at you kid,” then laughed at his own wit. I laughed too even though I couldn’t pinpoint which movie scene he was referencing at the time. I knew it was something classic, something I’d seen before, and that I was somehow a complete cultural dolt for not knowing exactly what. I laughed anyway and he went back to cracking and slicing and singing, this time Rhianna.
When Barrett approached up the long dock half an hour later from the beach, Peanut pulled a long, clear worm-like piece of anatomy from the grey-skinned conch meat. He held it out towards us and said two words that told us everything we needed to know, the same two words we’ve since heard over and over again from other conchers in the islands: “Bahamian Viagra.” He shoved half of it into his mouth and left the other half dangling between the parallel gap in his upper and lower teeth, spilling out between his stretched wide lips. He flicked it up and down with his tongue, laughing even harder as the worm whipped his nose and his chin, and then swallowed it in a single gulp.
I was a mix of infatuated and disgusted and I also knew I wanted to eat a little clear conch worm myself even though Viagra is for men. Peanut passed the next one to Barrett who swallowed it with more ease than I did the one he passed me just a moment later. “Better than the Mezcal worm,” he said to me. And even though I’ve never tasted the Mezcal worm myself, I had to agree, it probably was. It was delicate and salty, like an oyster liquor-flavored gummy worm, and I halfway wondered if some Michelin-star-toting chef could somehow use the transparent sea-birthed gummy worm in a fine dining kind of dish.
When the sun started to sink, I passed Peanut a couple more VitaMalts as a thanks for sharing his time and songs and laughter with us and also for our first true introduction to conch. From shell cracking to the googley eyes to the clear Viagra worm, which it turns out has, according to scientists, no real link to human sexuality and is actually part of the conch’s digestive tract called the pistol. But we still eat them whenever we dive for conch ourselves now and we still refer to them as Bahamian Viagra. They’re a memory of that afternoon with Peanut and the conch pistol and a salad that tropical dreams are made of and maybe also there’s a small hope that the Bahamians are onto something with the pistols that evades scientific reason.
Peanut waved to us and told us to enjoy the night, shouting down the dock through his own belly laughs, “He’s going to keep you up all night long with that thing in his belly!” As we walked away, chuckling with him at the thought, we heard the beginnings of a conch salad continue behind us in the shape of hammer swings and empty shell tosses, along with the faint sound of Peanut singing. This time, though, it was Michael Jackson. “Don’t stop, til you get enough…”