Clinton Curry, a Key West native who has blown conch shells since he was a child, took top honors in the 50th Annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest.
“The conch shell has a huge place in Key West history,” Curry told the Palm Beach Post. “I’m all about preserving the heritage of my home town. This is just one small piece that I get to contribute to helping preserve that history.”
More than 50 fans of the fluted, pink-lined shell participated in the “conch musicianship” in the tropical garden of Key West’s Oldest House, 322 Duval St. Nicknamed the Conch Honk, the lighthearted competition salutes Key West’s seafaring heritage and is presented by the Old Island Restoration Foundation.
The tradition of blowing a conch shell in the Florida Keys began centuries ago. In the 1800s, when the local economy was largely based on salvaging cargoes from ships wrecked on the nearby reef, sailors attracted attention by blowing piercing blasts on the shell.
“There wasn’t a ship that went out that didn’t have at least one conch shell on it for communications,” said contest winner Curry.
The Keys’ connection with conch goes far beyond instrumental and communications applications. The slightly tough meat of the hardy mollusk is the prime ingredient in conch chowder and conch fritters, two of the island chain’s signature dishes. Keys natives proudly proclaim their own tough, hardy nature by calling themselves “conchs” and their home the Conch Republic.
While most entrants only manage blasts or squawks, each year a few produce complex melodies that impress judges and audiences alike. Winners are chosen for the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they make, with trophies awarded in multiple age categories. The festivities typically include performances by talented “pucker pros.”