The finest meal left uneaten

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

One of the finest meals we ever enjoyed was a meal we didn’t finish. We just walked away from it.

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, we took an annual scuba diving trip to Stella Maris Inn in the Bahamas. The leader of our jolly little band of divers was John O’Rourke.

John always had a diverse group. Most years we had some students from Wilmington College or the YMCA who had taken John’s scuba class. If these student-divers went with us and completed various diving techniques to John’s satisfaction, they could earn an Open Water Diver certification. It was always fun to help make that happen.

Every year we also had several friends who enjoyed the beautiful adventures that the dive trip offered. Many of our companions were people John had instructed years earlier. Some traveled quite a distance to join us. They just could not resist the unspoiled, underwater beauty that is the highlight of Stella Maris diving.

Stella Maris Inn is a fascinating place. It sits toward the northern end of an 80-mile-long island, aptly called Long Island. The inn sits on a bluff overlooking the choppy, dark blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

The greenish-blue Caribbean side of the island is where the best reef systems await the divers. It is an amazing, beautiful place. Each year, we had people joining us for their second, third or fourth trip because once you visited Stella Maris, you always wanted to come back.

Peter and Jorge were the innkeepers at Stella Maris. They studied innkeeping in Germany and brought the standards of fine European hotels, hospitality, and dining to the remote Bahamian resort.

They were very hands-on in every aspect of the inn. In the dining room, it was common to have one of the owners take your food order and show up a few minutes later with several plates of hot food lined up on their arms. The smiles and laughter were nonstop.

They brought Bruno to run the restaurant. Bruno was a Bavarian master chef. He combined the best of European cuisine and blended it with Bahamian ingredients and recipes to provide every guest an unforgettable experience.

Every year, Debbie threatened to kidnap Bruno and bring him to Wilmington. Honestly, I would have been fine with that.

Conch is a standard ingredient in many Bahamian dishes. The empty seashell of a conch can be used like a bugle. You often see conch shells used as decorations around landscaped pools and gardens.

The conch is an amazing thing. It is technically a marine gastropod mollusk. Hidden within the beautiful shell is the slimy, rather disgusting looking large snail.

The edible part of the conch is about the size of a clinched fist and it is beyond firm. It is about the consistency of a lump of clay. However, when diced up into small pieces, it tastes great in soup, gumbo and conch fritters.

But it is chewy. I’ve heard conch called the “eraser of the sea” — it’s that rubbery.

In June of 1990, several of us decided to extend our vacation by a week and take the dive boat out for a week of adventure. There were several of us living aboard a dive boat that wasn’t designed to be a live-aboard.

Luckily, Bruno went with us, so we ate well. We found several conch within easy diving distance of the boat. Bruno cracked open the shell freeing the large conch within. He then proceeded to clean it. Wow, that was ugly.

Bruno offered me the “conch pistol” — found within the gutsiest part of the conch. It is about the size and length of a skinny pencil but is made completely of cartilage. It’s clear and slimy. The goal is to swallow the entire pistol in one gulp. It is supposed to be good for you.

I passed on the opportunity.

Then Bruno said we would have “cracked conch” for dinner. Preparing cracked conch requires someone (me) to take a hammer and beat on the fist-sized hunk of hard meat until it was completely flattened. Bruno’s directions were to, “Hold the hammer in your right hand and beat the conch until you can’t swing the hammer anymore. Then, switch hands and do it again.”

By the time I was done, the conch was flat, and I was exhausted. Breaded and fried like a fish filet made the conch tasty, tender, and absolutely delicious. It may have been the best Bahamian meal I ever had.

On a different trip, we decided to venture out and eat at an authentic Long Island restaurant.

Several miles south of Stella Maris Inn was a roadside restaurant named Mario’s. We called and told Mario we would need two large tables for our group. We received the traditional Bahamian response, “No problem, mon.”

Our first impression was underwhelming. A couple of pigs were wallowing in a muddy spot beside the parking area. We had to step over the pigs to get to the front steps of the restaurant. It looked more like a two-car garage attached to a shack than a restaurant.

Inside, we found tables filled with food ready to be served up family-style: chickpeas, conch fritters, conch salad, conch chowder, fried grouper, sea turtle, spicy Bahamian rice and more and more. We ate and ate. We ate so much we started sweating Bahamian spices. It was wonderful. The only thing left to be eaten was a piece of fried cracked conch.

That piece of delicious, cracked conch sat alone in a serving bowl. Everything else had been eaten.

As a group, we decided to leave it. The image of that amazing piece of seafood will live on in our memories forever. None of us ate it.

I hope they didn’t give it to the pig.

Whatever happened, I will always appreciate Stella Maris and our friend O’Rourke for providing diving and dining experiences that will last a lifetime.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist