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.
What is cracked conch?
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 recipe bought with a bribe
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).”
How do you make cracked conch?
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. It also influenced 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 because the 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.
Brittanie Clacken says
This was a whimsical and lovely read. Brought a smile and a chuckle to my face. You always know the best people and get the best stories!
Aw thank you Brittanie!!
I absolutely love cracked conch so I definitely appreciate this story.
Paul Maillis says
Wonderful article Gabrielle. It is such a simple story, but certainly one our people should be aware of. Greek descendants have made the Bahamas our entrenched home. We are as diverse in the thought and spirit as any Bahamian people, and today we are proud of our contributions to Bahamian heritage. The Bahamas has embraced the Greeks and we love this country for it. My family was born here and will die here. Can’t wait to show it to the family!
Beautifully said Paul, and thank you!
Deborah Harrison says
Thank you for this story! Love the airport arrival story, that’s me! I want it in the car when I walk out the terminal.😃 this makes me want to dig deeper into our Bahamian food and culture. Thanks again.
You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Read this. It’s awesome. You’re awesome! And I’m so glad you have a blog. 😘
Thanks K!! <3
I had no idea. Thanks for sharing. Will certainly pass this on to my daughter whose great-grandfather hailed from Kalymnos.
Oh cool! You’re welcome. 🙂
The Greeks have a rich history in the food business here in the Bahamas.
Thanks for sharing ❤️
You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
Esther Bethel McKinley9 says
I had no idea that we have the Maillis family to thank for that delicious Bahamian dish “cracked conch”. I was a classmate of Charles and attended QC with him, Maria and Pericles. Now living in FL near Tarpon Springs. Thanks for the story!
You’re welcome! I’m a QC alum as well and grew up with a younger generation of Maillises. 🙂
Eric Rose says
This was a good read and great story. Thank you!
So glad you liked it!
What a lovely and interesting story. My hope is to make the Bahamas my home in the future at least part time. Cant stay away from the grandkids too long.
That sounds like a great plan. Glad you enjoyed the story. 🙂
Oh man. I remember being in university and my Bahamian girlfriend would have her dad ship up conch to Canada. I use to go eat under the dock.
She’s gone but my love of cracked conch and a cold Kalik mandates my first stop at fish fry before I even hit the hotel or my friends house.
Haha sounds about right!!
Woo! I’m so glad!
Sandra Burrows says
Fantastic read Gabs! I really had no idea! Thank you for sharing!😊
Yay, I’m so glad you enjoyed it Sandi. 🙂
Robert D. Sands says
Such a pleasure discovering this delicious piece of our history! Thank you!
You’re very welcome! 🙂
Gia Sands says
This was such an amazing part of history! Thank you for sharing!
Yes I agree! You’re welcome. 🙂
Marley Jallah-Deveaux says
I’m married to a Bahamian, and this is one of my favorite dish. We live in Massachusetts, and whenever family is coming to visit, they always bring us a snack😍
Haha wow it makes quite a journey! Hope it isn’t too long till your next one. 😉
Remarkable. Thank you for sharing.
I had a teacher named Calliope Mosko in my early years at Queens College in Nassau.
You’re welcome! 🙂
Lavern Rolle says
This is an amazing article. Never knew all of this information about the Maillis’s. Mr Perciles Maillies has been my family lawyer since the early 80s. I had the pleasure of meeting both of his parents at Alexander House opposite the Hilton Hotel.
Oh wow! Glad to share what I’ve learned with you. 🙂
Karen DeGregory says
You have my mouth running water for some Crack Conch. Thank you for the great story of how Crack Conch came about
Haha better get you some! You’re welcome. 🙂
Lisa Sorenson says
I met the Maillis’ in 1984 and they have remained dear friends since then. They told me about the history of Cracked Conch when I first met them. It’s wonderful that you have written up this wonderful story with the details and photos, for the record!!! Thank you!
They’re a wonderful family and it’s a fab story. You’re welcome!
Rashad G says
This is an amazing story. One I will definitely share. Thanks to Mrs Maillis I have a favorite dish…
Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for sharing. Everyone should know about Mrs. Maillis!
Leslie Munnings says
Long live Mrs. Maillis!!
Woo!! Thanks Uncle Les. ^_^
Racquel Johnson says
I was an interesting history lesson. Had no idea where cracked conch originated but now because of your research, we are all informed. Thanks for the revelation and hope to read more from you soon
You’re very welcome – and thank you!
This is a really great read. Thank you so much
Frederick Curry says
I loved this article. Very well written and it made me smile when I found out how my beloved cracked conch was born. Now I will continue to savor every bite as I daydream about the love story and the very first meal of cracked conch.
Thanks Frederick, I wrote it hoping to spark moments like the one you described. 🙂
Garith Fraser says
Wowwww, I had no idea! A great history lesson on my favorite dish ever! 🙂
Yay! Thanks Gari! ^_^
Thank you Gabrielle for this history lesson. I myself am somewhat of an amature food historian and i like to go to “original dish restaurants.” I see from your article that The Imperial is/was the original cracked conch restaurant. Do you happen to know if The Imperial still exists, or is there a restaurant in the Maillis family that still sells cracked conches? Any info is appreciated, thanks.
You’re welcome! The Imperial closed a while ago, although the Maillis family law firm operates from the same spot (on the southern side of Bay Street, opposite the Hilton). I don’t know of anyone in the family that sells cracked conch, although Alexandra, Mrs. Maillis’ daughter, is an amazing chef and pre-COVID hosted an amazing once p/month dinner club. I went last year and it was delicious and so much fun! It seems they’ve adapted that idea for the present, but I’d say it’s worth looking her up on fb – Events by Alexandra. In terms of getting this particular style of cracked conch, the restaurant at the Old Fort Bay club might make theirs with cracker meal. Years ago I tried their cracked conch and the coating was very fine. I’ve never seen it like that anywhere else. Good luck with your hunt!
This was very helpful, thank you for the info. I will definately look into that.
^My bad, accidently thought it didn’t go through and rewrote.
No worries, I figured! I just ignored the duplicate 🙂
Just amazing. Love the history.
Thanks for commenting Ruth. Yes, our food history is fascinating!