Apr 232015


On this date in 1982 the Conch Republic (República de la Concha) declared itself as an independent micronation — a semi-serious secession of the city of Key West, Florida, from the United States. It has been maintained as a tourism booster for the city since. Since then, the term “Conch Republic” has been expanded to refer to “all of the Florida Keys, or, that geographic apportionment of land that falls within the legally defined boundaries of Monroe County, Florida, northward to ‘Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon’ in Florida City, Dade County, Florida, with Key West as the nation’s capital and all territories north of Key West being referred to as ‘The Northern Territories.’ ”

While the protest that sparked the creation of the Conch Republic (and others which have occurred since then) have been described by some as “tongue-in-cheek,” they were motivated by frustrations over genuine concerns. The original protest event was motivated by a U.S. Border Patrol roadblock and checkpoint which greatly inconvenienced residents and was detrimental to tourism in the area.


The Conch Republic celebrates Independence Day every April 23 as part of a week-long festival of activities involving numerous businesses in Key West. The organization — a “Sovereign State of Mind”, seeking only to bring more “Humor, Warmth and Respect” to a world in sore need of all three according to its Secretary General, Peter Anderson — is a key tourism booster for the area.


In 1982, the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock and inspection point on US 1 just north of the merger of Monroe County Road 905A/Miami-Dade County Road 905A on to US 1 (they are the only two roads connecting the Florida Keys with the mainland), in front of the Last Chance Saloon just south of Florida City. Vehicles were stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants. The Key West City Council complained repeatedly about the inconvenience for travelers to and from Key West, claiming that it hurt the Keys’ important tourism industry. Eastern Air Lines, which had a hub at Miami International Airport, saw a window of opportunity when the roadblocks were established; Eastern was at the time the only airline to establish jet service to Key West International Airport, counting on travelers from Key West to Miami preferring to fly rather than to wait for police to search their vehicles.


When the City Council’s complaints went unanswered by the U.S. federal government and attempts to get an injunction against the roadblock failed in court, as a form of protest Mayor Dennis Wardlow and the Council declared Key West’s independence on April 23, 1982. In the eyes of the Council, since the U.S. federal government had set up the equivalent of a border station as if they were a foreign nation, they might as well become one. As many of the local citizens were referred to as Conchs, the nation took the name of the Conch Republic.

As part of the protest, Mayor Wardlow was proclaimed Prime Minister of the Republic, which immediately declared war against the U.S. (symbolically breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a naval uniform), quickly surrendered after one minute (to the man in the uniform), and applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid.

Conch Republic officials were invited to the Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994, and Conch representatives were officially invited to 1995’s Florida Jubilee.

The mock secession and the events surrounding it generated great publicity for the Keys’ plight — the roadblock and inspection station were removed soon afterward. It also resulted in the creation of a new avenue of tourism for the Keys.

On September 20, 1995, it was reported that the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion of the United States Army Reserve was to conduct a training exercise simulating an invasion of a foreign island. They were to land on Key West and conduct affairs as if the islanders were foreign. However, no one from the 478th notified Conch officials of the exercise.

Seeing another chance at publicity, Wardlow and the forces behind the 1982 Conch Republic secession mobilized the island for a full-scale war (in the Conch Republic, this involved firing water cannons from fireboats and hitting people with stale Cuban bread), and protested to the Department of Defense for arranging this exercise without consulting the City of Key West. The leaders of the 478th issued an apology the next day, saying they “in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic”, and submitted to a surrender ceremony on September 22.

During the U.S. federal government shutdown of 1995 and 1996, as a protest, the Republic sent a flotilla of Conch Navy, civilian and fire department boats to Fort Jefferson, located in Dry Tortugas National Park, to reopen it. The action was dubbed a “full scale invasion” by the Conch Republic. Inspired by efforts of the Smithsonian Institution to keep its museums open by private donations, local residents had raised private money to keep the park running (a closed park would damage the tourist-dependent local economy), but could find no one to accept the money and reopen the park. When officials attempted to enter the monument, they were cited. When the citation was contested in court the following year, the resultant case, The United States of America v. Peter Anderson, was quickly dropped.


In yet another protest on January 13, 2006, Peter Anderson (the defendant in the Dry Tortugas case from 1995–1996) purported to annex the abandoned span of Seven Mile Bridge, which had been replaced by a parallel span in 1982. The move was in response to a recent event regarding Cuban refugees. On the previous January 4, fifteen Cuban refugees had reached the bridge, but had been returned to Cuba by the U.S. Border Patrol because the U.S. government had declared the bridge to be a “wet feet” location under the “wet feet, dry feet policy”. The rationale was that, since two sections of the span had been removed and it was no longer connected to land, it was not part of U.S. territory subject to the “dry feet” rule, and thus the refugees were not permitted to stay. Anderson, seizing upon the apparent disavowal of the abandoned span by the U.S., claimed it for the Republic. He expressed his hope to use the bridge to build affordable, ecologically friendly housing. In response, Russel Schweiss, spokesman for Florida Governor Jeb Bush, declared “With all due respect to the Conch Republic, the bridge belongs to all the people of Florida, and we’re not currently in negotiations to sell it”. The refugee decision was later overturned, but only after the refugees had been returned to Cuba.

In another protest beginning in 2008, the northern keys including Key Largo formed a separation of the Conch Republic known as the Independent Northernmost Territories of the Conch Republic. This separation is claimed to be a result of disagreements over the definition and usage of the term ‘Conch Republic’.


Through their website, the Republic issues souvenir passports. Although these are issued as souvenirs, some people have evidently acquired them in the mistaken belief that they can be used as legitimate travel and identity documents. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, FBI investigators thought that hijacker Mohamed Atta had possibly purchased a Conch Republic passport from the website. International Country Code stickers can also be purchased from vendors in Key West, bearing the initials KW and “CR”—the country codes for Kuwait and Costa Rica, respectively.


The Conch Republic actively maintains an Army, Navy and Air Force whose primary duties are to help re-enact the Great Sea Battle of 1982 and the retaking of Fort Jefferson. The Navy consists of no fewer than 10 civilian boats and the schooner Wolf under the command of RAdm Finbar Gittelman. The Army consists of the 1st Conch Artillery, garrisoned in Fort Taylor. The Conch Republic Air Force has more than a dozen appointed aircraft in its fleet. The flagship, a 1942 Waco, was flown by Fred R. Cabanas, a legendary stunt pilot and Ambassador for the Conch Republic at air shows worldwide. He flew “Conch Fury” in the 2005 Reno Air Races. Fred was declared General of the Air Force by the mayor of Key West after intercepting a defecting Cuban MiG-23 with his Pitts Special in 1991. Following his death in January 2013, Fred was succeeded by his son, Raymond Cabanas.


Obviously my celebration of the independence of the Conch Republic is not because of its world-shattering importance, but to give me a chance to celebrate conch as a delectable food. Let’s start with the pronunciation of the name. There are long, occasionally heated and complex, debates on the subject, sometimes involving deep philological discussions on the matter based on the Greek origins of the word. Is the final sound /ch/ or /k/? For me the answer is simple – how do the locals pronounce it? They pronounce it ‘conk,’ so for me that’s the end of it.

Conch is a seafood treat throughout the Caribbean region, especially in the Bahamas – many Bahamians migrated to Key West – and the dishes throughout the area are quite similar. In Key West three dishes are very popular: conch fritters, conch chowder, and raw conch salad. I’m indifferent to the fritters, but I like the chowder and the salad. I’m going to give informal recipes for both. You can find a good fritter recipe here if that’s your thing:




©Conch Chowder

Proportions of all ingredients are to your taste. These are my suggestions.

Cut 1 lb of fresh conch into ½ inch pieces and place in a bowl. Add ¼ cup of key lime juice and 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce and mix well. Set aside to marinate. In a large stew pot sauté 4 rashers of back bacon cut in ½ inch pieces until lightly browned. Pour off the fat. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and gently sauté ½ coarsely chopped onion, 2 stalks of celery, 2 finely minced garlic cloves, 1 coarsely chopped green bell pepper, and one finely minced hot chile pepper. Cook over medium-low heat until very lightly browned. Add 1 can of Roma tomatoes crushed with a fork, plus juice, and simmer for 1 or two minutes. Add ¼ cup dark rum, 1 potato diced (peeled or unpeeled), the marinated conch mixture (with marinade), 1 bay leaf, ¼ cup of chopped cilantro, and 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh thyme. Salt and pepper to taste. Moisten with ½ cup of fish stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer partly covered for about 1 hour. Add more stock if the chowder gets too dry. Discard the bay leaf. Serve in deep bowls garnished with chopped cilantro. Provide hot sauce for guests to add if they wish and some crusty bread for dipping.


© Raw Conch Salad

This one is absolutely cook’s choice when it comes to ingredients. I prefer to keep it very simple.

Slice 1 lb of conch, and ½ a red onion. Dice 1 red bell pepper, ½ cucumber (peeled or unpeeled). Seed and mince 1 Scotch bonnet pepper. Put all these ingredients in a bowl with ¼ cup lime juice (not sure if key lime juice works – never tried), 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh cilantro, and mix well. Put the mix into a zip top bag, close except for a small hole, squeeze out the air, and close completely. Refrigerate overnight.

Next day seed and dice 1 tomato and 1 avocado. Pour off the excess marinade from the conch mix, put it in a bowl with the avocado and tomato and mix well. Refrigerate for an hour or two – the lime juice will prevent the avocado from browning. Serve on chilled plates with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro. You can serve the marinade in shot glasses if there is enough.

Some people add fruit in place of vegetables, especially mangos and oranges. Your choice.



Apr 302014


Today is Walpurga’s Night or May Eve, the day before May Day. In this case “night” really does mean night, but “eve” signifies the day and night before, and not just the night before, although the waning hours are the most important. The word “eve” is confusing nowadays because it seems to mean “evening,” but it does not. Rather, it means “verge of,” hence, it can refer to the whole day. Many, many important festivals have events associated with their eve, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve being the most obvious. Often the eve of a saint’s day is concerned with some form of prognostication (see Eve of St Agnes, 20 Jan.). Others are times when the normal world order is temporarily suspended and, because of this, mystical beings have a chance to appear to mortals. All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en) springs to mind (not coincidentally, 6 months from May Eve). Some of these customs have faded in the modern era, victims of the needs of industrialism and the general disenchantment of the world. But Walpurga’s Night survives in a great many countries in northern Europe.



In the mid to late 20th century many movements sprang up based on the belief that European folk customs, such as those associated with May Day, are survivals of ancient pagan (pre-Christian) ceremonies. Such belief is almost entirely founded on 19th century British and German social anthropology which was dominated by, and fed, the Romantic Movement. The most well known figure now from this era is Sir James George Fraser whose Golden Bough was, and is, extremely influential. But he had a slew of contemporaries such as Andrew Lang (famous in his day for his Fairy Books), and Edward Burnett Tylor who coined the term “survivals” for folk customs. These scholars have faded in importance in the academic world because their theories were deeply flawed, and based on shaky, or zero, primary evidence, that is, written documents from ancient times. Primary evidence simply does not exist in most cases, and we cannot construct robust theories with no data (although there seems to be an endless stream of people willing to try). We can categorize their work nowadays as wishful thinking. But, let me be clear. If you want to do all kinds of mystical things on May Eve, that’s just fine with me. The disenchantment of the modern world, that is, the loss of mystery in the popular mind in favor of the pragmatics of modern science and technology, is just dreadful. I celebrate everyone who wants to get dressed up, or drink too much, or cavort around a bonfire, or sing raucously, or whatever on May Eve. Done it all myself at one time or another. What gets my hackles up as a scholar who has spent decades in dusty archives researching old documents (I have two file cabinets stuffed with notes and photocopies), is the notion that these customs have their roots in the deep dark mysteries of pagan Europe. Show me the evidence and I will believe you. It does not exist.

I also want to point out that there are two quite distinct sets of customs associated with 1 May in Europe which tend to get muddled these days: the Celtic festival of Beltane, and the northern European/Germanic celebration of May Day. Obviously they are both spring festivals and so, naturally, share elements. But the central ethos of each is quite different. Maybe next year I’ll focus on Beltane. This year May Day holds sway.

The current festival is, in most countries that celebrate it or have celebrated it, named after the English missionary Saint Walpurga (c.710–777/9). Because Walpurga was canonized on 1 May (c. 870), she became associated with May Day, especially in northern Europe. The eve of May Day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurga’s night (Walpurgisnacht in German and Dutch, Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish, Vappen in Finland Swedish, Vappu in Finnish, Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö) in Estonian, Valpurgijos naktis in Lithuanian,Valpurģu nakts or Valpurģi in Latvian, čarodějnice and Valpuržina noc in Czech). In most of these countries Walpura’s Night celebrations have lapsed, are minor, or have transformed into different events. For example, in Germany there are still a few places where people play pranks and light bonfires, but in the big cities it is usually used as an occasion for left wing groups to rally in preparation for May Day. Finland and Sweden, however, still have major festivities.


In Finland, Walpurga’s Night/Day (Vappu) is one of the four biggest holidays along with Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus). There are huge carnival-style festivals held in the streets of Finland’s towns and cities. The celebration, which begins on the evening of 30 April and continues to 1 May, typically centers on copious consumption of sima (recipe below), sparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. Student traditions, particularly those of the engineering students, are one of the main characteristics of Vappu. Since the end of the 19th century, this traditional upper-class feast has been appropriated by university students. Many lukio (university-preparatory high school) graduates (who are, thus, traditionally assumed to be university bound), wear a cap. It is common to eat freshly cooked funnel cakes (name) along with sima, a mildly alcoholic lemonade.

In Helsinki and its surrounding region, fixtures include the capping (on 30 April at 6 pm) of the Havis Amanda, a nude female statue in Helsinki, and the biennially alternating publications of ribald matter called Äpy and Julkku, by engineering students of Aalto University. Both are juvenile; but while Julkku is a standard magazine, Äpy is always a gimmick. Classic forms have included an Äpy printed on toilet paper and a bedsheet. Often, the magazine has been stuffed inside standard industrial packages, such as sardine cans and milk cartons. For most university students, Vappu starts a week before the day of celebration. The festivities also include a picnic on 1 May, which is sometimes prepared in a lavish manner, particularly in Ullanlinnanmäki—and Kaisaniemi for the Swedish-speaking population—in Helsinki city.


Valborgsmässoafton bonfires are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. In Southern Sweden, an older tradition, no longer practiced, was for the younger people to collect greenery and branches from the woods at twilight. These were used to adorn the houses of the village. The expected reward for this task was to be paid in eggs.

Choral singing is a popular pastime in Sweden, and on Valborgsmässoafton virtually every choir in the country is busy. Singing traditional songs of spring is widespread throughout the country. The songs are mostly from the 19th century and were spread by students’ spring festivities. The strongest and most traditional spring festivities are also found in the old university cities, such as Uppsala and Lund, where undergraduates, graduates, and alumni gather at events that last most of the day from early morning to late night on April 30th, or siste april (“The Last Day Of April”) as it is called in Lund, or sista april as it is called in Uppsala. For students, Valborgsmässoafton heralds freedom. Exams are over and only the odd lecture remains before term ends. On the last day of April, the students wear their characteristic white caps and sing songs of welcome to spring, to the budding greenery and to a brighter future.

In Uppsala, since the mid-1970s, students honor spring by rafting on Fyrisån through the center of town with rickety, homemade, in fact quite easily wreckable, and often humorously decorated rafts. Several student groups also hold “Champagne Races” (Champagnegalopp), where students go to drink and spray champagne or somewhat more modestly priced sparkling wine on each other. The walls and floors of the old nation buildings are covered in plastic for this occasion, as the champagne is poured around recklessly and sometimes spilled enough to wade in. Spraying champagne is, however, a fairly recent addition to the Champagne Race. The name derives from the students running down the downhill slope from the Carolina Rediviva library, toward the Student Nations, to drink champagne.

In Linköping, the students and public gather at the courtyard of Linköping Castle. Spring songs are sung by the Linköping University Male Voice Choir, and speeches are made by representatives of the students and the university professors.

In Gothenburg, the carnival parade, The Cortège, which has been held since 1909 by the students at Chalmers University of Technology, is an important part of the celebration. It is seen by around 250,000 people each year. Another major event is the gathering of students in Trädgårdsföreningen to listen to student choirs, orchestras, and speeches. An important part of the gathering is the ceremonial donning of the student cap, which stems from the time when students wore their caps daily and switched from black winter cap to white summer cap.

In Umeå, there is a tradition of having local bonfires. During recent years, however, there has been a tradition of celebrating Valborgsmässoafton at Umeå University. The university organizes student choir songs, there are different types of entertainment and a speech by the president of the university. Different stalls sell hot dogs, candies, soft drinks, etc.

For Walpurga’s Night here are two traditional Finnish recipes, sima and tippaleivät (funnel cakes).




1 gallon water
3 large lemons
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar plus sugar for bottles
¼ tsp yeast
25 raisins


Bring the water to a steady boil. Meanwhile, use a lemon zester or a potato peeler to remove the outer yellow rind of 2 of the lemons in strips, placing these in a large glass or plastic (non-metal and heat-proof) container. Peel or trim off the bitter inner white rind of the lemons and discard. Slice the lemons and place in the container with the zest, adding brown and white sugar.

Once the water boils, pour it into the container with the lemons and sugar. Let it cool to lukewarm, then stir in yeast. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for 24 hours, or until the surface begins to bubble.

Strain the liquid into clean glass bottles, quart jars, or plastic containers.

Slice the remaining lemon and add the slices plus 5-6 raisins and 1 teaspoon of sugar to each bottle. Seal tightly and refrigerate for 2-5 days, or until the raisins float.

Keep refrigerated and serve cool.

Yield: 4 quarts (about 20 servings).





2 eggs
1 tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
oil for frying


In a heavy pot or deep fryer, bring cooking oil to 375°F/190°C.

Whisk together the eggs and sugar lightly, then stir in the milk. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt and stir until you have a smooth batter. Work quickly because once the liquid is added the baking powder is active.

Transfer the batter to a pastry tube with a small tip, or improvise with a freezer bag with the top sealed and a small holed snipped from one corner.

When the oil is hot, use one hand to dip a metal ladle in the oil until it is half filled. With your other hand quickly pipe the batter in a swirled, criss-crossed pattern into the ladle to make a bird’s nest. Lower the ladle completely into the oil. The fritter should immediately float to the top of the fryer. Allow the fritter to turn golden on the bottom and then flip it over with a slotted metal spoon to brown on the other side.

Remove the fritter with a slotted spoon and drain on a wire rack. You can work in small batches of 2 or 3 at a time. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.