Crucian Cuisine of St Croix

As I write, it is mere hours before the official start of CARIFESTA XIII and four days before that of the 4th Caribbean Junior Culinary Conference. Bearing this in mind, we thought that our culinary focus for the next few weeks should be on our Caribbean neighbours and some of the foods that make them unique.

Since its inception back in 2008, internationally-certified Executive Chef, Anton Döös, has ensured that St Croix is represented at the annual Caribbean Junior Duelling Challenge competition, taking on the dual roles of team manager and Coach. As only to be expected, St Croix, like the other competitors, will be hoping to trump the other eight teams to emerge victorious and capture the coveted Caribbean Junior Duelling Challenge title in 2017.

However, this time around, the team will be under different leadership, as Chef Döös will be wearing the hat of co-host. He has handed over the reins of coach to one of his former competitors, Elle Abraham, who walked away with the Spirit of the Competition award back in 2013.

St Croix takes the spotlight this week with their Crucian Cuisine.

The foods common to the Virgin Islands today are a result of interactions between the indigenous Indians and Europeans during the early years of settling on the islands. On St Croix, seven flags reigned, the latest and hopefully final, is “Old Glory”, the flag of the USA.

The longest immediate past administrators came from Denmark and as such, many food staples can be traced back to that country.  However, with the French, English, Spaniards, Dutch and Knights of Malta also having claimed rights to the island, food from those countries have also influenced the local cuisine. The earliest inhabitants, the Arawaks and Caribs, may have left an impact as well, as one of the enduring cooking methods the Indians used was barbecue.

The Europeans brought recipes and food products like onions, garlic and wheat that were unknown to the region. They also brought many food items that are today synonymous with the island, such as breadfruit, limes, mangoes and sugar cane. With the importation of Africans also came new crops like okra and new cooking styles.

From the Americas came beans, corn, potatoes and varying types of peppers, and, of course, various preserved products such as salt-fish, beef and pork.  Livestock such as cattle (St Croix created the Senepol breed), sheep, goats and chickens (now the primary source of meat protein) made the voyage to the new lands.

Food sources were scarce at times, especially as every inch of land was used for cane production and St Croix became the largest producer of sugar in the region under Danish rule. Field workers grew small patches of vegetables and resorted to using the local wild growing greens like the kallaloo bush. corn mush, or fungi as it is called locally, made it quickly to every table due to its low cost. The addition of okra, a staple known to the African population, was added to give it more taste and nutrition.

Today, fungi is still one of the most used side dishes. The less desired meat parts like the tail, ears and snout were incorporated into oxtail stew, souse and other delicious concoctions like goat water. Of course, the bounty of the sea also influenced the local cuisine, as old wife, snapper or butter fish all make it to the plate in varying cooking methods, with frying being the favorite. Conch and whelks make for interesting ingredients in stews, soups or fritters.

When rice was introduced, it quickly became the most used grain, eaten plain, or flavoured with pigeon peas as seasoned rice containing herbs and spices. Of course, the pumpkin made its presence known as well, resulting in all kinds of dishes from breads, pies and fritters, to ice cream or just boiled plain.

With the migration of workers from Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean, St Croix inhabitants again experienced a new culinary experience, as curry and sofrito were introduced. Additionally, with the building of the largest oil refinery in the western hemisphere in the sixties (closed since 2013) and the import of oil workers from the Gulf Coast, the American BBQ rib and chicken became a quick local favorite.

Today, new young chefs have emerged to make a claim to locally sourced agriculture and are changing the culinary picture. In the past, Crucians enjoyed food without much fuss about its presentation as long as the plate contained a lot of food. With the arrival of these innovators, we see more emphasis being placed on presentation and technique to enhance the standard of food.

The annual Taste of St Croix, considered one of the ten best food events, showcases the local bounty to the world. The Crucian or US Virgin Islands food culture has been influenced by so many different cultures that today there is really no single food staple that is not also prepared elsewhere, up or down, left or right from here. However, nowhere else did I find Red Grout, a simple dessert handed down through generations, made of guava and cassava pearls.

Next week, our St. Lucian counterparts will tell us about their cuisine. This week’s article was taken from the Caribbean Junior Culinary Conference Magazine 2015.

Source: (Peter Edey is a certified executive chef with the American Culinary Federation, a graduate of l’École Ritz Escoffier, Paris and a certified Caribbean hospitality trainer. Email: peter@dcbarbados.com)

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