Devano Mckenzie saunters along Cable Beach in the Bahamas, carrying a plastic basket of large conch shells. The 36-year-old native Bahamian sings as he passes by sunbathers sipping from coconuts: “Call me on my shell phone,” he croons, enticing people to buy the tropical marine mollusks he dived and fished for from 4 to 7 that morning, which he’s been doing each morning with his brothers since he was 17 years old. He’s cleaned and inserted a hole into the base of each shell so people can blow sound through them, and he harvests the conch meat to sell by the pound at different area restaurants and food stores. Bahamians have relied on conch as a staple source of protein since the 1830s, and the food is widely considered an aphrodisiac when eaten raw, like an oyster.
“It’s true,” Mckenzie insists as we stand together on the beach. “I know guys who got eight or nine kids. Some guys eat conch right out of the shell and drink a Guinness stout. It’s a chemical combustion when the two come together. It puts a lot of lead in the pencil.”
While those who enjoy eating these bottom-dwelling sea snails insist eating raw conch meat makes them thirstier than slipping into a hot ex’s DMs, its friskiness-inducing properties are more closely steeped in tradition rather than scientific fact. Conch, native to the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Florida Keys, is considered a lean protein and a good source of iron and calcium, but the creature has never been explicitly tested to confirm its aphrodisiac properties. Nonetheless, it’s a steady part of the national conversation from early on in the lives of the people it’s native to.
“That is a tradition; we love aphrodisiacs in our country, and we have many aphrodisiacs, conch being one of them,” Murray Sweeting, a local food historian and culinary tour guide on the island, tells MUNCHIES. “I don’t think that medically there’s any sort of truth to it.”
In particular, one part of the conch considered to have the most aphrodisiac properties of the entire sea snail is widely misidentified. While people have said and written that the conch’s pistol is the genitalia of the conch, this isn’t true. I got some more intel from a fragrant fishing truck near the white sands of Cable Beach that serves conch raw, fried and cracked. The owner of the truck, John Culmer, a third-generation Bahamian fisherman and occasional provider of conch for the nearby SLS Baha Mar hotel, gutted and cleaned two conchs in front of me, pointing out the genitals of the male and female, and showed how the pistol was actually a clear, rubbery tube called the crystalline style, which helps conchs break down the algae they eat. “We don’t eat this,” he said about the conch genitals—and yet, echoing Mckenzie, Culmer said the pistol, “puts the lead in the pencil,” as if reciting an old book everyone read and was beholden to repeat. “I grew up knowing that, that’s what they used to tell everyone.”
This truth about the pistol is not likely erotic, but more about showmanship. “The conch vendors, when they pull the pistol out of the conch, it’s a graphic experience in that they’re pulling out this clear, thin cartridge and they will offer it to their guests,” says Anna Bancroft, general manager at Tru Bahamian Food Tours. “Some tourists will say no way, others will accept it, but the conch vendor typically always eats the pistol, claiming that it has these properties. It probably doesn’t, but it’s very much folklore and tradition that’s been passed down.”
When I asked Culmer whether he believed in the aphrodisiac element, he said, “Honestly, I’m not saying it doesn’t work for women, but more or less, men do it so their penis can stand up longer so they have more energy. It might just be a mind thing, because there’s no scientific anything to prove any of this. There’s no evidence, there’s no trials that have been run, but no one’s gonna run it. But you know, some people believe in it, and some people don’t.”
Whether the conch really makes you horny or not, you can eat conch meat in a variety of ways to make the most out of its raw energy properties. The SLS hotel serves a tropical conch salad, where the meat is served ceviche style with lemon and lime juice. Reit Burrows, one of the chefs on the property, says you can eat it raw, as long as the slime (referred to as “conch slop”) has been completely removed from the sea snail. “Make sure it’s fresh,” she says. “Eating it as a ceviche with lemon and lime keeps it safe to eat [raw].”
“If I eat it, I feel strong,” Culmer says. “When you eat a conch salad, you go to work and feel strong. I don’t know, it’s like eating a steak because it’s pure muscle and there’s no fat inside conch. It’s salty and has a lot of cholesterol, so if you’re a hard-working person and have it for breakfast, you can work all day.”
As Mckenzie cleans a shell that he’s sold to someone on the beach, it’s clear it’s important whether there’s scientific evidence of its aphrodisiac properties or not. “This is my life,” he says. “The sea, the shells, this is my life.”