Spiny lobster, grouper, bonefish, conch: Despite the abundance of wild seafood available to me here in the Pacific Northwest, these are items I’ll never see on the “fresh” sheet of any Seattle restaurant. So when I’m lucky enough to find myself in the Bahamas—as I did following one Fort Lauderdale boat show a few years ago—I take every opportunity to get my fill of the islands’ fresh-caught fare.
BIMINI OR BUST
Most of the time I prefer to pull up a stool at whatever beachside shack has the coldest Sands beer, the crispiest fried grouper, the highest piles of rice and beans, and plantains on paper plates. Flavors are at their purest, chefs always friendly, prices just right. Once in a while I’ll put on my nice pair of flip-flops for a dinner at Mangoes in Marsh Harbour, or The Landing at Eleuthera.
But you won’t need to dress up for any of the restaurants in Bimini, where a group of us from Grand Banks (my employer at the time) gathered for a multi-day photo shoot after the boat show. It was a big operation in support of two newly launched models, starting with a long first day crossing the Gulf Stream before scouting locations around North and South Bimini.
Twilight was darkening when we finally tied up in Alice Town, and everyone was plenty hungry. A local restaurant beckoned with buckets of beer and planters punch on ice, but the kitchen was closing soon. As our team grabbed seats around the big round table we each called out orders for burgers, grilled fish, strip steak, and chicken wings. At the very last moment I convinced Larry Crouch, Grand Banks’ service manager, to split an order of cracked conch with me. I shouted my request to our waitress as she headed off for the kitchen.
When our food arrived Larry and I began by tearing into the cracked conch. The first bite tasted slightly…off. The second bite had overtones of bleach. But we were ravenous, and besides, the beer drowned out any unpleasant aftertaste. Larry and I continued to eat, drink, and laugh along with the rest of our crew.
We all split up after dinner: Most of the team were lodging at the resort, but Larry and I chose to bunk aboard the two boats we left in the marina—me on the 47 Heritage and Larry aboard the 46 Eastbay in the next slip over. We said our goodnights and soon I settled cozily into the master berth. Between the gentle rocking of the boat and the dense book I’d brought along to read, I was sure to be nodding off in no time.
BUMP IN THE NIGHT
A soft ache in my belly, though, kept nagging me awake—nothing too severe, just enough of a pain to keep me tossing around in search of a more comfortable position. But I didn’t think too much of it, chalking up the dull throbs to my growing anxiety over weather conditions for our next morning’s photo shoot.
Then I heard The Noise. It started in low—then it began to grow; a bilge pump struggling with a clog? Lines groaning against old wooden pilings? Perhaps a manatee in violent throes of childbirth? I headed topside to investigate.
Swinging open the cabin door, I confronted an even more alarming sight right across the dock: Larry, in a t-shirt and underwear, on his knees and tossing his guts over the side of the Eastbay’s cockpit while moaning a raw and wretched sound that still haunts me to this day.
Before I could offer assistance or even utter a word, my mind connected the dots between this unholy scene and my own stomach pains, and then back to dinner’s off-tasting conch. A second later I was heaving over the side myself, gagging and groaning in pitiful unison with poor Larry.
Wave after wave of nausea attacked with brutal force; the only slim comfort was our misery-loves-company brotherhood of pain. I’ll spare you further gory details, but let’s just say we spent the next several minutes—which felt like hours—in what Larry called “a gastronomic reversal of epic proportion.”
I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had awoken the whole marina, if not the entire island, with our cries and moans. When I finally opened my eyes only a couple of barracuda had come to investigate, their shimmering forms illuminated by the glow of underwater lights from a nearby sportfish. As I regained my footing and looked around, I speculated on the remote possibility of an ER somewhere along this sliver of an easygoing island.
CONQUER THE CONCH
For most people the symptoms are mild, but food poisoning can be severe and in some cases deadly. Warm-water shellfish like conch are highly perishable and must be refrigerated or frozen soon after cleaning. Most places throughout the Bahamas do an excellent job handling and storing their food, but just like anywhere in this world, there are exceptions.
My advice for food lovers cruising the islands: Ask locals for their recommendations. If you find yourself at a hangout that looks dicey, take a look around or even a friendly peek in the kitchen before you order up any food. Don’t hesitate to ask about their handling and safety practices. And with internet access spreading to more and more marinas, coves, and island destinations, it doesn’t hurt to search for any advice online.
As for me, I would enjoy no more Bahamian cuisine, conch or otherwise, for the reminder of that trip: My diet consisted solely of Saltines and bottled water. With the kind support of the rest of our crew, Larry and I struggled through our photo shoot and eventually made it home days later with our insides still inside.
It took a while before I could even look at conch again, on a plate or in the sea. But when I was back in Bimini a year later—at a different restaurant, mind you—I didn’t hesitate to order up a plate of fresh cracked conch. Sometimes revenge is a dish best served fried, with lemon wedges and an ice-cold beer.