Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Carolina Conch" Chowder: It's Life Changing

It certainly changed my life. My first taste was in the late 80’s during the now defunct “Strange Seafood Festival,” at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. The museum people called it “left handed whelk chowder.” My favorite kind of soup was conch chowder, which this tasted like, only better.

Conch and whelk are both mollusks that are essentially “sea snails,” though of different families. Conch is indigenous to the Caribbean. Whelks inhabit Atlantic waters all the way up to Maine. Most are harvested by shrimpers, who dredge them in the weeks before shrimp season opens. Whelk is often referred to and sold as conch. It is also known as scungilli, which is the Italian word for “conch.”

The nice people from the museum shared their recipe. After some tweaking, the results intrigued me enough to sell my successful home services brokerage business for the money to further develop the recipe for canning and bring it to market. Trading as Denzer’s Food Products, we had Denzer’s “Carolina Conch” Chowder in local specialty food stores by late 1992. It drew raves from just about everyone willing to spend top dollar for so arcane a concoction as whelk chowder. Ultimately, Denzer’s Food Products had a line of five different soups and chowders. You can see them in the archives for this site of Dec. 17, 2005.


1 pound whelk meat
1/4 pound fatback
2 onions, diced
1 large green pepper, diced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
14 1/2 ounce can diced tomatoes, including juice
6 ounce can tomato paste
1/2 cup North Carolina barbecue sauce, as vinegary as possible
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon Old Bay
1 tablespoon oregano
3 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced

If whelks are purchased in their shells, freeze the whole works, then thaw. The whelks will then pull easily out of their shells. Otherwise, purchase frozen whelk meat either at a seafood market or an Asian Market. It’s easiest to find in February or March and may be labeled as "conch." Run meat through a grinder to make as coarse a grind as possible. Soak in milk and refrigerate until ready to use. Meanwhile, fry out the fatback. Add garlic, onions, and green pepper, then cook until tender. Combine with canned tomatoes (including juice), tomato paste, barbecue sauce, oregano, bay leaves, Old Bay, and a quart of water. Add salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and allow to simmer. After simmering for about 90 minutes, drain and rinse the whelk, before boiling in a pot with one quart of water to which two tablespoons of vinegar have been added. Boil for 20 minutes, then combine the whelk and broth to the other simmering ingredients. Cook for two more hours, add the potatoes, and continue to cook two hours longer, stirring occasionally. Add more water if soup becomes too thick.