St. Croix: A Culinary Surprise
Today on The Daily Meal
For most travelers there is a set of criteria that a destination must meet before booking that trip. Some may need a ton of adventure; a place to explore and discover. Others need a place to roll out their beach towel and just exhale. Then there are those who simply need a place to dig in; a place they can explore with their taste buds.
Typically an island destination meets at least two of the requirements. There are plenty of beaches on which to relax and an unending stretch of land to explore, but more often than not, mealsare excessive buffets and beach bars may be extremely satisfying but not very complex. A quick trip to the Virgin Island of St. Croix may quickly change your mind. Not only does the island have a steep and active agricultural history, there are an amazing amount of options the nightlife and dining scene has to offer. Whether you are looking to swim up to a beach bar (yes, they have those too) or enjoy an evening of authentic Crucian cuisine, there is plenty for you and your taste buds to experience on a trip to St. Croix.
Agriculture: A Tumultuous History
Since its establishment, St. Croix’s agricultural scene has weathered many storms. When Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Virgin Islands during his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he had no idea he would be landing on an island that would soon be wrought with political controversy. In the following centuries, many settlers such as the Spanish, Dutch, French, and English would battle over the possession of St. Croix, due mostly to its most profitable crop: sugar. In fact, because of their sugar plantations, rum production and enslaved population, St. Croix was one of the wealthiest areas in the Virgin Islands.
“St. Croix was once considered the breadbasket of the Caribbean and widely planted agriculturally,” explains Katherine Pugliese, sommelier, restaurant–owner and co-founder of The St. Croix Food & Wine Experience. “Sugar cane and cotton were the biggest industry at one time.”
By the 1800s, St. Croix had grown to a population of 30,000 strong (with 26,500 of them being slaves) that powered the economy through trade. When Denmark’s slave trade closed, the agricultural economy came to a close and left St. Croix in a desperate period of economic unrest. Despite the U.S. acquisition of the island in the early 1900s, the agricultural economy did not grow until the 1950s when tourism became the island's main economic industry.
Despite the economic turmoil, the island prospered. When sugar crops were officially taken off the land in 1966, the people of St. Croix turned to raising the red Senepol cattle that still serve as their primary source of agriculture.
Today, the Crucians agricultural scene is stronger than it has been since those darker early years.
“Primarily now it [agricultural priducts] is tropical fruits like mango, papayas, and avocados; vegetables like pumpkin, squash, tomatoes, varied herbs; and livestock lamb, chicken, and goats,” says Pugliese. “I could go on and on. Farming has had a huge resurgence in the past five years.”
Now they annually host “Agrifest,” the largest agricultural exposition in the territory. Agrifest is an opportunity to experience not only the livestock and locally grown produce, but a chance to try native cuisines and sample foods such as kallaloo, tarts, candies; and local drinks like ginger beer, sorrel, passion fruit and maubi. While visiting St. Croix, travelers can peruse the local farmers’ markets and can even stay in some of the historic plantations that powered the island so many years ago.
In the Home Kitchen
With a history deeply tangled in trade and enslavement, Crucians developed their own unique style of cooking.
Caribbean food was influenced by the plethora of settlers who came into their land. The predominant influences were the Europeans who brought breadfruits, mangoes, and limes; the slave trade Africans who brought ingredients like okra and their own cooking styles; and the Indians who contributed the addition of curry.
Relying on the fresh, sustainable ingredients available to them, the cuisine today is a beautiful blend of all of these cultures, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few traditional dishes of their own. There are many native Crucians who create dishes from the heart, from the classic comfort food made in the kitchens of St. Croix grandmothers to the modern homes of food lovers like Tanisha Bailey-Roka the Crucian Contessa.
“I find that Crucians tend to eat dinner at home,” says Bailey-Roka. “Food is prepared with love and shared with friends and family. Sunday gatherings and weeknight dinners tend to be centered on the home. But the food scene is also very diverse and well supported, with many of the restaurants opened for lunch and dinner along with a few breakfast spots.”
Although visiting the island of St. Croix will expose you to an array of delicious gourmet foods, there are some dishes that are near and dear to native hearts.
“This tremendous diversity is deeply reflected in our food,” says Bailey-Roka. “For example, a traditional Crucian favorite is the ‘Benye’ which is our version of the Southern European dessert beignets. However, unlike its European cousin, our Benye uses what we had on hand to sweeten and flavor it. So, you will find a heavy use of bananas and other Caribbean spices in our version.”
Jane Watkins, a St. Croix native and owner of Watkins PR, shared with us some of her favorite dishes from growing up:
“I remember eating them most at Whim Greathouse where they were made on cruise ship days (busy days),” recalls Watkins of this beloved dish. Unleavened cornbread cake made out of cornmeal, Johnny Cake was first introduced to Europeans by Native Americans who in turn brought it to the Virgin Islands.
“Trinidad has a large Indian population (almost 50 percent),” explains Watkins of her next favorite dish. “They brought roti with them, and then [I believe] to St. Croix. Growing up, my best-friends grandmother, from Trinidad would make it for me on weekends. That is the best — home made.” Often “roti” implies a beloved hot sandwich with curried meat or vegetable in it, but really only refers to the bread of the dish. This flat, tortilla-like bread is rolled out like a pancake then expertly grilled on a special griddle called a “tawa.” Though traditionally served separately from the filling and eaten like a finger food, roti is becoming slightly more modernized and is served as a completed hot sandwich.
Pigeon Peas and Rice
Another favorite dish that hails from India is the spicy pigeon peas and rice dish. “This is what I dream of,” says Watkins. “This is what I always want to eat as a starch with dinner. This or Puerto Rican rice which has green olives in it.”
Another popular dish, tamarind balls are a Crucian classic that blends both sweet and sour. The tamarind tree is indigenous to Africa, but the Spanish introduced it St. Croix to in the 16th century, and has since served as the basis for a beloved crucian dessert. “My neighbors growing up were from Puerto Rico originally,” recalls. Watkins. “We would pick tamarinds, de-seed them and then Maria would help make this sour treat. Then we’d roll them in sugar. It is torture — so sweet they ache. Your teeth scream and mouth waters as the sour of the tamarind hits you. Fun!”
On the Scene
Being a huge destination for beach lovers and adventurers alike, St. Croix’s restaurant scene is more than just a tourist spot. With dozens of options across the island, no matter what you are searching for, it is likely to be available on St. Croix. And sure, you can sip cocktails on the beach (and you should, as there are great spots like Cane Bay where you can order drinks like “Sex in the Champagne Room), but you can expect to enjoy some serious fine dining.
“St. Croix is a very dignified island in my opinion,” says Watkins. “Unless you’re on the beach, you will get some really strange looks if you walk around shirtless and shoeless. However, you can go to the top restaurant in a clean shirt and nice shorts and flip flops. There is even a lawyer on the island and his standard attire is a button down shirt, jeans and flip flops. The events during the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience really get everyone dressed up (well, the ladies) and it is such fun to see all the beautiful women...”
While you could head to any area of the island for a great bite to eat (truly, one area doesn’t outrank the other) there are definitely spots off of the beaten path that are worth searching for. Do not feel like you have to stick to the resort to get a good meal.
“My favorite “secret” spot would be Villa Morales which is open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights,” says producer and St. Croix native Terri Wunschel. ”Located off Queen Mary Highway in Frederiksted, they serve local island favorites, using local seafood such as conch, lobster, snapper, farm raised goat and many island fruits.”
Though dining on the beach isn’t a bad way to spend the day, you can even get more deeply involved with all the indigenous produce they have to offer. Pugliese and Bailey-Roka suggest reserving a spot at Ridge to Reef Farm where you can stay and work on a farm (at your own pace) and enjoy monthly slow, farm-to-table dinners that she says “fill up fast.”
“The Caribbean has been known for their beaches, not the food,” admits Pugliese. “But I think St. Croix’s diversity and quality may surprise many foodie travelers.”
And while you’re there, Bailey-Roka has a few must tries she suggests for an authentic Crucian experience:
“In order to truly have an authentic Crucian experience, a traveler MUST have two dishes, ‘Fish and Fungi’ and ‘Chicken Leg and Johnny Cake.’ Fungi (pronounced fun-gee) is one of the most traditional Crucian dishes. The savory and tasty delight is made with cornmeal and okra and served usually with local fish in butter sauce. The best description of what fungi tastes like is a firm polenta with okra. A Fried Chicken Leg served with a Johnny Cake is just simple fried food goodness. I call it festival food because it is most prevalent on Parade days, or Fair Days, or at the Crucian Festival Village during the Christmas holiday. It is just fun fast food that is pure deliciousness!”
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