KEY WEST, Florida Keys - Maybe American Idol winners aren't abandoning their guitars to play conch shell concerts, but fans of the fluted, pink-lined shell are puckering up for the 50th annual test of conch musicianship in Key West.
The Conch Shell Blowing Contest begins at noon Saturday, March 3, 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 veteran contest winner Clinton 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.
Several dozen kids and adults are expected to compete in the March 3 conch honk, showcasing their pucker power and honoring an important Keys tradition. Spectators can expect more laughs than musical inspiration and a surprise visit from some characters from Key West's seafaring history.
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.
The 2012 Conch Shell Blowing Contest is free to enter and watch. Contestants can register at the Oldest House from 10:30 a.m. to noon March 3, or at the event itself if space is still available. Those lacking instruments can purchase conch shells on site.
Event information: www.oirf.org
Key West visitor information: www.fla-keys.com/keywest