Caribbean Whelks: The World’s Most Delicious Aphrodisiac

West Indian Whelks–The World’s Most Delicious Aphrodisiac

West Indies WhelksCittarium pica of the family Tegulidae (also known as “magpie shell” or “West Indian top shell”)

The cuisine of St. Croix, thanks to the internet—with YouTube cooking programs, “foodie” blogposts, and website articles—is finally taking its rightful place amongst the great culinary traditions of the world.  And one of the most esteemed dishes in the pantheon of Crucian recipes is “whelks in butter-sauce.” Not only is the whelk locally regarded as one of the most delicious fruits of the sea, it is also considered by many Afro-Caribbean men to be an aphrodisiac, capable of palatably endowing a man with the characteristic firmness of mollusk itself.

Even the harvesting of the whelk along the island’s shoreline during low tide is steeped in age-old beliefs:  that whelks, upon hearing the human voice, will release themselves from the shoreline rocks into the safety of the depths of the sea and therefore should be harvested in silence; and that whelks detect the scent of humans and should therefore be “picked” against the wind so as to avoid detection.  Whelks are so much a part of Crucian culture that they have even provided a local name for official fashion terminology:  What the rest of the world calls “cropped pants” or “pedal-pushers” or “Capri pants” are locally referred to—even if unflatteringly so—as “picking-whelks” pants.  

Spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is today considered a delicacy; but a century ago, in the Caribbean, it was so commonplace that it was used as bait. And queen conch (Eustrombos gigas) has been regarded as a seafood staple for centuries. Not so, however, with whelks:

From time immemorial, this sea snail has been regarded as a delicacy on account of its compelling flavor, so much so that prior to preservation laws, it was harvested from coastline rocks to the point of extinction in several island-habitats. 

That whelks are highly coveted by Crucians is perhaps best illustrated in the following article which appeared in the St. Croix Avis in the immediate aftermath of the 1878 Fireburn, where a laborer invokes the “picking whelks” defense to explain away his presence on an estate to which he was not contracted to work:

St. Croix Avis, Wednesday, October 16, 1878

There is nothing new to report as to the state of the island since our last.  There are no doubt some runaways still hiding in the bush at Fair Plain and perhaps around Mt. Eagle and elsewhere. One was caught a few days since at Cotton Valley, and brought in by Mr. De Leon of Coakley Bay. He accounted for his presence in that neighbourhood by alleging his fondness for whelks, and protested that he was innocent.  It was explained to him that there was no objection to his taste for whelks, but that the question of his innocence must settled before the Policemaster in Bassin, and he was accordingly brought to the fort.

In another 19th-century article, a man’s survival on whelks alone is detailed:

Lightbourn’s Mail Notes, St. Thomas, Monday, June 17, 1889

During last week there were several disasters among the Fishing craft. At Savannah Island a boat was lost and one man drowned; the other was rescued from the island after several days’ hardship, during which he subsisted on whelks.  At “The Brass,” Cay off Estate Hull, there was also a boat lost, but the two occupants were saved—one having had to swim towards mainland for help for the other. Two more boats were cast ashore on the North side and totally wrecked, but fortunately without any loss of life. 

The West Indian (Caribbean) whelk, Cittarium pica of the family Tegulidae (also known as “magpie”), is a marine gastropod mollusk with a characteristic black-and-white shell. Pronounced “wilks” in the English-speaking Caribbean, it is known by different names in the rest of the region: “cigua” in Cuba; “quigua” in Venezuela; “bulgao” or simply “caracoles” (“snails” in Spanish) in the other Spanish-speaking islands. The species is not closely related to that known as “whelk” in Europe and the United States.

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 Believed to have a lifespan of close to thirty years, West Indian whelks reproduce each year, between the months of June and November, via external fertilization: Males release their sperm into the water, and females simultaneously release their eggs. The species is believed to be a herbivore, feeding primarily at night by actively scraping algal growth off coastline rocks. And it is in the dark of night, when the whelks attach themselves to the rocks at water’s edge in order to feed, that men harvest them (in a process called “picking whelks”), sometimes being washed away by the waves to their deaths in the process. In the case of Bermuda, where whelks were harvested to extinction, they have been reintroduced.

Fabled to be an aphrodisiac, whelks are boiled in their shell, then removed from the shell, cleaned, and prepared in various ways, the most popular being in a traditional butter-sauce consisting of butter, onions, lime juice, some of the stock produced during the boiling of the whelks, and salt to taste. The traditional complement is white rice. Whelks are also combined with shrimp, lobster, squid, cockle, octopus, onion, bell peppers, olives and/or capers, lime juice, and olive oil to make a classic, chilled seafood salad, typically served with avocado and/or sweet potato.

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