Crossing Off St. Croix
Step into Crucian Culture for Friendly Local Flavors
written by Tiffany Willard | photos courtesy of St. Croix; Tiffany Willard
There’s just something about disembarking a plane directly onto the tarmac. Something awakens when you cross the doorway and step onto that slightly rickety, open-air metal staircase and are met by a warm wind. Walking to the single-story terminal across the runway, conversations come to a halt, not able to be heard over the whir of airplane propellers. It reminds me of my childhood, ages ago in the late 60s – a simpler time, when nothing was hurried, people were friendly and every day was all about the fun. When I ventured onto that metal staircase at Henry E. Rholsen Airport, the kid in me was filled with anticipation.
I was headed to St. Croix for the annual Food and Wine Experience. Held every April, the Experience is a weeklong celebration of the island’s bounty. With a few days to spare before the start of the gastro event, a little sightseeing was in order.
A Colorful Collection
At 27 miles long and 7 miles wide, St. Croix is the largest of the islands comprising the U.S. Virgin Islands. Seven flags have flown over the island throughout its colorful history, and each country’s influence has blended together to create a unique Crucian flavor. And as for color, the unofficial shade of St. Croix is yellow, which fits perfectly for this sunny island and its bright people.
Geographically, St. Croix is surrounded completely by reef, the only opening being in the Frederiksted harbor, making a natural gateway for the limited number of cruise ships that visit the island. Once ground zero for the emancipation of slavery in St. Croix, Frederiksted is home to many of the island’s historic government buildings. While usually quiet, the town comes alive on the third Friday of every month with free sunset jazz concerts in the park under the gaze of Fort Frederik. Across the island, Christiansted’s pastel-colored buildings house jewelry shops, art galleries and restaurants. Participate in Christiansted’s Art Walk on the third Thursday each month with a visit to galleries and studios whose art reflects the beauty and essence of the island – a perfect time to purchase that original St. Croix hook bracelet you’ve been wanting.
Driving across the island, remnants of sugar mills and plantations are everywhere, chronicling the area’s 200-year history of sugar production. The Estate Whim Plantation Museum seeks to pay homage to that process while educating visitors on island life during the last two centuries. Besides the Great House, cookhouse and sugar mill, the museum also houses the Family History Center research library, a comprehensive collection of birth, baptismal and slave trade records that can be used to trace any Crucian family’s ancestry.
The Spirit of St. Croix
All this sightseeing can work up an appetite, and the number one spot on my eating list is La Reine Chicken Shack. Crowded with locals and tourists, visited by the likes of Joe Biden and Martha Stewart, this open-air roadside spot is known far and wide for its spit-roasted chicken served on Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils. Nearly 300 chickens per day meet their destiny on the shack’s ingenious roasting poles. A bevy of sauces for any taste are available, but true hot sauce lovers should ask for the homemade scotch bonnet sauce. It’ll make your eyes water, but it’s a good burn. Your order won’t be complete without johnny cakes, a sweet bread that can best be described as a cross between a beignet and a pancake. Full disclosure: it was so good I broke my “never eat at the same place twice” rule and stole back again later in the week.
To wash down that fantastic meal, head to the Cruzian Rum Distillery, where yeast, molasses and water meet up to create a tasty concoction synonymous with sunset boat trips and umbrella drinks. After a very informative tour of the distillery, you arrive in the tasting room where you’re served a choice of cocktails made with one of the 23 varieties produced under the Cruzian Rum label.
Food, rum, nap. Whether you choose one of the many beautiful beaches, or a hammock high in the hills, St. Croix just seems to beckon you to relax. This is not a party island. You won’t find rows of discos blaring through the night. This is an island that finds its joy in being together, sharing a meal or just “liming.” It’s a term I heard a lot. Urban Dictionary defines “liming” as encompassing “any leisure activity entailing the sharing of food and drink, the exchange of tall stories, jokes and anecdotes … provided the activity has no explicit purpose beyond itself.”
This is the spirit of St. Croix: being invited into someone’s home, having them share their love and hospitality through the food they prepare, laughter emitting from every open door. In fact, Tanisha Bailey-Roka, a local personality known as the Crucian Contessa, opened her home — unplanned — to our entire group, plus her family and friends. She’s a lawyer by day, champion of local flavor by night, and not only gave us a taste of her memorable johnny cakes, but sent us home with the recipe. Crucians are staunchly proud of their island and eager to show the rest of us everything that makes it special, both above and below sea level.
Rested and ready to dive into the clear blue waters, I joined a group on a catamaran for an excursion to Buck Island Reef National Monument. A little over a mile off the coast, Buck Island is a habitat for protected and endangered wildlife such as brown pelicans and hawksbill turtles. Turtle Beach, a long strip of sugar-white sand on the west side of the island, has been named one of the 10 prettiest beaches in the world by National Geographic. It’s a good place for a stroll, or to test your snorkeling skills before heading to the reef. At the reef, snorkelers can follow an underwater trail with plaques indicating the fish and coral types prevalent in the area.
Divers would prefer the deep underwater trench that runs about 7 miles parallel to the north shore of St. Croix. The Cane Bay wall starts less than 100 yards from shore at a depth of 40 feet, dropping to more than 3,200 feet. Tropical corals, sea life and relics make this one of the top dive spots in the Caribbean.
The Ultimate Experience
You could say the Taste of St. Croix is the “Cane Bay” gem in the weeklong St. Croix Food and Wine Experience. Fifteen years ago, two local women, both restaurant owners and expectant mothers, dreamed up the idea to celebrate the local food scene while giving back to the community, and Taste of St. Croix was born. With more than 50 restaurants represented this year, the 2,000 hungry guests sampled some of the best the island has to offer in both food and wine. Participants in this juried competition lined the beach, dishing out toothsome treats like Mahi Tixin Xic over Cactus and Tomato Salad with Chile-Lime Lobster, or Local Honey and Orange Blossom Water Chocolate Ganache Wontons with Lemongrass Drawstring and local Mango and Papaya Drizzle.
With all of the tantalizing dishes combined with local bands playing reggae and swing music that had the guests and the table skirts swaying in the sea breeze, I understood how Taste of St. Croix has raised more than 25 million dollars throughout the past 15 years. Most of the money has been directed to the St. Croix Foundation, a nonprofit started after hurricane Hugo devastated the island with a direct hit in 1989. The nonprofit has funded restoration of historic buildings and projects with the local police department. It has introduced local farmers, fishermen and meat purveyors to restaurants and chefs, as well as set up a farm-to-school program, establishing gardens in schools to provide food and teach culinary skills. The foundation’s goal of creating healthy communities mirrored the vision of those involved in Taste of St. Croix, and the island has benefited greatly from both.
Other events during the week include gourmet dinners at highlighted restaurants, cooking classes, a sunset BBQ on the Frederiksted Pier, Wine in the Warehouse and $1,000-per-plate intimate dinners in private homes. Award-winning and celebrity chefs visit the island to participate in the weeklong event.
This year’s chefs included Duff Goldman from Charm City Cakes, homegrown, award-winning chef Digby Stridiron and Dean Spinks, the Executive Chef at Facebook’s corporate offices in California. Working alongside these chefs are local students from the island’s Career and Technical Education Center, as well as seventh and eight graders chosen as Culinary Juniors through a “Top Chef”-style competition. The chefs are often so impressed with the young talent that they continue to mentor and support them long after the event has ended. Past participants have even snagged internships at Facebook and at Sam Choy’s Kai Lai Restaurant in Hawaii. Throughout the island there is a clear dedication to teaching the younger generation the importance of caring for and maintaining the Crucian culture, and this experience was no exception.
With my clothes a little tighter than when I first landed, I arrive back at the St. Croix air terminal. As my flight is called the glass double doors are pushed open and my flying companions and I leave the air-conditioned waiting area for the warm, breezy and expectantly noisy airstrip. Climbing the metal stairs and looking back over the flat roof of the small airport, I take in one last deep breath of simplicity. My only question is “How long can I hold it?”
Johnny Cakes Recipe, Via The Crucian Contessa
2 cups of unbleached flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tablespoon cold butter
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar (or more if you like a sweeter johnny cake this makes for a more savory version)
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup water
Sift together all the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, butter, salt and sugar. Cut in butter with your fingers or a pastry cutter until it is finely distributed throughout the dry ingredients. Pour in the milk and water. Using your hands begin kneading the dough. The dough will be tacky and extremely sticky. This is not a bad thing. The soft texture of the dough will help to ensure a light and fluffy outcome. However, you will need to sprinkle in some extra flour to be able to handle the dough. Go easy…a little at a time. Flour can toughen the johnny cake. Your goal is to get the dough to completely come together without adding too much flour to make the johnny cakes tough. You want a light and fluffy outcome. This is what I meant above when I said you have to bring your kitchen intuition into play. Be gentle with the dough and yourself. It will come together. Continue kneading for about five minutes, and add a sprinkle of flour as necessary. Let the dough rest for one hour in a bowl with plastic wrap to prevent an outside skin from forming over the dough. If it does form a skin, don’t worry. This dough is very forgiving. After it has rested, lightly dust a sheet pan with flour. Pinch off a piece of the dough– enough to make about a two to three inch ball. Roll the dough in your palms and place on the floured surface. In a frying pan, bring about 1 to 2 inches of canola or vegetable oil up to frying temperature. Flatten the dough pieces one at a time by gently stretching them in a circular motion. Do not just palm flatten the dough. The gentle stretching helps to create the much needed gluten that makes the johnny cake light and fluffy. It should be about a 1/4 to 1/2 inch in thickness. Fry the johnny cakes until golden brown on one side, then flip over gently to fry until the other side is golden brown and cooked through. You may need to modify your heat so that it doesn’t cook too slowly or too quickly. If you fry them at too low a temperature, they will soak up the oil and be very greasy. If you fry them too quickly they will burn on the outside and not cook through properly. Again, this is “pay attention” cooking or rather “pay intuition” cooking. You CAN do it!! Use one as a test, then after you’ve successfully mastered it, fry the rest the same way. If it isn’t working out the way you want modify it. Maybe you can increase or decrease the frying time and/or temperature or even the size of the johnny cake itself. Play with it and see what outcome works best for you! Once they have finished frying, place them on a paper towel to absorb the extra grease. If you’ve fried them properly, it shouldn’t have much oil. These are the perfect crunchy on the outside texture and a nice open and airy inside that still has some substance. They are great with a cup of cocoa tea or even for breakfast with eggs and bacon, or as we love to eat them on the rock with a well-fried chicken leg! Enjoy!