Burt Wolf's Table: St. Thomas and St. John - #212

BURT WOLF:  St.  Thomas and St. John.  St. Thomas is a port with the biggest duty-free shopping allowance ever allowed by the U.S.  We'll find out why.  We'll discover why we were told not to swim after we eat.  We'll take a tour through St. John and see one of the most beautiful spots in the Caribbean and we'll cook along with some great chefs.  So join me on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John at Burt Wolf's Table.

BURT WOLF:  The islands of the Caribbean form a chain that starts just off the southern tip of Florida and continues down to the northern coast of South America.  About midway through the group are the U.S. Virgin Islands.  There are actually about fifty islands.  But the most important are St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas.  And each has its own unique quality. 

When Christopher Columbus first bumped in the islands of the Caribbean, he claimed them on behalf of the king and queen of Spain.  Nice try, but no cigar.  As soon as the other kings and queens of Europe found out what was going on, they began to challenge his claim throughout the area.

France, England, Holland and Denmark sent their ships across the Atlantic and battled for a piece of the pie.  For 300 years, European monarchs fought over the islands of the Caribbean.  The only reason for all the action was money.  European powers realized that the islands of the Caribbean were ideal locations for trade and profit.

For Denmark, the prize possessions were three parcels of land known as the Virgin Islands.  Two of them, St. John and St. Croix, became agricultural centers covered with plantations.  The third, St. Thomas, became a duty-free trading port.

The U.S. government purchased the islands in 1917.  It was the First World War and Washington was concerned that the Germans might use the area as a submarine base.

When the Danish finally made the sale, they insisted that the area be kept as a duty-free port.  And today it offers U.S. residents the dutiest-free port in the world.

Most of the action takes place here in the central shopping district of the town of Charlotte Amalie.  The old stone buildings that once housed cargos of rum and molasses bound for European and North American traders now hold jewelry, perfumes, watches, china, and cameras which are still bound for Europe and North America, but these days they go right into the hands of the vacationing customers.

Attention shoppers!  U.S. residents may bring back up to $1,200 worth of duty-free goods.  That's twice the amount for other Caribbean islands and three times the amount for most other foreign nations.  And while you are here, each day you can send back up to $100 worth of gifts, duty-free also.  And you should do it.  It's your duty.

Paintings of the St. Thomas port of Charlotte Amalie from the 1700 and 1800s clearly show the development of the town as a commercial center.  Buildings of merchants who were buying things from other parts of the world and selling them in the Caribbean.  A perfect example of that tradition today is a group of shops called Little Switzerland.  Their specialty, as you might expect from their name, is the Swiss watch.  But they also carry jewelry and pearls and precious stones.

But that's not what brought me here.  Little Switzerland is a major retailer of fine tableware.  And I find that interesting.  More and more of our food is coming to us in plastic bags and paper boxes and styrofoam cups.  So who's buying crystal stemware and porcelain plates -- and why?  The answer to “who” seems to be people who are going through a change of life.  Getting married and starting a new home.  Or they've come to a better economic environment.  Why they are buying these objects is also quite interesting.  Porcelain is harder than most other ceramics so it chips less and lasts longer.  The top-quality flatware has better balance and feels better in your hand.

When it comes to the stemware, it's because crystal sends more light into the glass and there's no distortion.  Everything looks better in crystal.

In the Western World we take the table fork for granted.  It can operate on its own, in combination with the spoon, and teamed with the knife, its potential is awesome.

The fork is the most recent of our common table tools to arrive on the scene.  It was first mentioned during the 11th century and it wasn't a very nice mention at that.  The Bishop of Venice had seen a woman using a fork at a dinner party and he threw an absolute fit.  He was thoroughly convinced that the fork had been invented by the devil and it actually took about 800 years before the fork came into common use in the west.  During those early days food would come to the table in a big bowl.  Everybody would reach in and take their portion and put it onto a piece of bread that sat in front of them like a plate.

If you use a fork on a hunk of bread, there's a good chance you'll make a hole in the bread and let the moisture drip out onto the table, then onto your lap.  Not good form.  Eventually, a hard wooden or pewter plate was introduced under the bread and that gave the fork a chance to get into fashion.

It was a three-pronged design and a four-pronged design and at one point, they introduced a five-pronged model based on the success of the five-fingered hand.  But in the end, it was the four-pronged fork that went out and became the most popular.

The fork has clearly become a fashionable part of western ritual.  But you never know what's going to happen.  Most of the people on our planet eat with their hands.  The next largest group eat with chopsticks.  The knife, fork and spoon gang is actually only a tiny minority.  And as people migrate from one part of the planet to another, it's impossible to know which fashions will take hold and which will disappear.  Here in the U.S. Virgin Islands, there is a blending together of many different cultures.

The beautiful enclaves of the U.S. Virgin Islands were first inhabited by native tribes that came here from South America, followed by the Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Africans and North Americans.  Each group has made some culinary contribution to the islands' kitchen.  Very often when you come to a place that's famous as a vacation spot, it's almost impossible to get a taste of the real local cooking unless somebody brings you home for dinner.

Fortunately, that is not a problem on St. Thomas.  There are a number of restaurants here that are famous for reproducing the classic local dishes of the area.  One of my favorites is Eunice’s Terrace on the Eastern end of the Island.

EUNICE:  The key to West Indian food is the seasoning.  We use thyme, chervil, onions, garlic, celery.  And we use the mortar and pestle and pound it with salt.

BURT WOLF:  So tell me what's cooking on St. Thomas.

EUNICE:  We have callalou, which is okra, spinach, conch, fish.  All like in a gumbo.  It's excellent.  This is our local boiled fish.  You haven't tasted anything like our local fish.  We have a fish called the Old Wife Fish.

BURT WOLF:  I had that the other day.  Why is it called Old Wife?

EUNICE:  It's a story.  Listen to the story.  It's a fish with a skin.  Alright?  And when they skin the fish, they take the skin off and put it in the sun to dry and the women used to use it as brillo.  So they ... it got the name Old Wife.  The correct name is Trigger Fish.

BURT WOLF:  I don't think that's fair.  If we're going to have an Old Wives’ Fish.  We ought to have something like an Old Husbands’ Shrimp, you know?

EUNICE:  I agree with you on that.

BURT WOLF:  We have to really correct these things.  What else is here?

We have our fungi, which is excellent.  It's yellow corn meal, we use okra and boiling water.  Whip it together, add a little margarine, no cholesterol, super dish. 

BURT WOLF:  Eunice also makes a traditional West Indian drink called Roots.  Eunice, what is in there?

EUNICE:  This is pure cane rum, catania roots, sea-grapes, cashew nuts and peanuts.

BURT WOLF:  And the rum soaks in all of that stuff?

EUNICE:  Soaks for two weeks.

BURT WOLF:  Two weeks!

EUNICE:  Yeah.

BURT WOLF:  Okay.  (PAUSE)  Mmmmm.  (COUGHS)  Not only is it an alcoholic beverage, but I now know where all my cavities are.  Whoa!

BURT WOLF:  The classic island specialty called Fungi makes an excellent side dish and it's very easy to prepare.  Here's how it's made by Chef Velda Brown at St. Thomas' Grand Palazzo Hotel. 

Okra slices are cooked in water.  Margarine is added.  Corn meal is mixed in.  And it's pressed against the sides to prevent lumps.  A margarine-coated bowl is used to flip individual portions into their traditional shape.  It's pretty simple.

Okra was believed to have special properties in connection with childbirth and was brought to the Caribbean by African slaves.  The African word for okra is “gumbo.”  And eventually, we began to use that word for any stew that we thickened with okra.  The techniques used in making the fungi are so ancient that they could have come here from anywhere in the world, including the original tribes that came up to this area from South America.  But the okra is clearly African.

BURT WOLF:  During the 1930s Sir Edward Cunard of the famous Cunard Steamship Company built himself a magnificent beach house here in the Caribbean.  He modeled it on his family's Renaissance palace in Venice.  And it was that piece of architecture that became the inspiration for St. Thomas' Grand Palazzo Hotel.  Stucco walls, gridiron balconies, classic Italian red-tile roofs.  That's what the great villas of the coast of Italy look like.  But those magnificent homes never look out on anything as beautiful as the Caribbean. 

Both the public and private rooms of the Grand Palazzo offer views that consistently remind you that the greatest architect of all is really Mother Nature. 

Their informal restaurant is called the Cafe Vecchio Terrace and it was a 180 degree view of the beaches and the island of St. John in the background. 

The more formal restaurant is the Palm Terrace and it really is an excellent example of good restaurant design.

One of the great challenges to a restaurant architect is to design a space that gets in as many chairs as possible, but doesn't give you the feeling that the people at the next table have joined you without your personal invitation.  You may also be discussing something of a highly private nature that you don't want anyone else to hear.  Like what you really think about the people your children are dating.

Well, the folks who designed this space did a fabulous job.  Because try as I might, I cannot hear what the people at the next table are saying and they ... look so interesting.

Great views to dine by have always been considered a valuable asset to a restaurant.  And certainly the vista from the Grand Palazzo is radiant.  For me, however, the most important view in any restaurant has always been the one directly down to the plate in front of me.

I've always believed that it's really the cooking that counts.  And fortunately, the cooking here is in good hands.

Patrick Pinon is a classic French chef who gave up bistros for beaches.  But he has never given up his grandmother's recipe for a traditional homestyle beef casserole.

A little oil and butter are heated together in a pot and two dozen baby onions are browned and removed.  Five pounds of beef chuck cut into small pieces are seasoned, lightly floured and browned on all sides.  A few tablespoons of tomato paste go in.  Wine, beef stock, the baby onions return, and everything goes into a 450 degree oven for an hour.  At which point some additional herbs and the zest of an orange are added.  A few carrots, and an hour of additional cooking and it's ready to serve.

Patrick has worked in many places around the world and he brings his recipes from place to place.  For a number of years, he was the chef to the Crown Prince of Oman, and this recipe travels from there.  It's a date-stuffed chicken breast.

The stuffing is made by sauteeing together some shallots, chopped California dates, pinenuts, and pistachio nuts.  That's flavored with cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and cayenne.  And it goes into a chicken breast which has been cut almost in half.  The chicken is browned on both sides and then braized in a 400 degree oven for twenty minutes.

A mold of couscous goes onto the serving plate, a saffron sauce, the chicken, and a few toasted nuts.

The date may be the world's oldest cultivated fruit.  Seven-thousand-year-old sculptures clearly show the date palm.  The date's been a basic part of Middle Eastern agriculture for centuries.  The Arabs brought the date to Spain and Spanish missionaries brought them to California.

As a matter of fact, the first date planted in California, was planted in a town called Mecca.  These days, California produces just about all of the dates grown in North America. 

A date palm has been described as living with its feet in the water and its head in the sun.  Perfect for the dessert oasis and the Cochella Valley of California.  Dry air above, irrigation below.  Date palms come in male and female forms, but that doesn't work too well for farmers because it means that much of their land would be giving over to male trees that don't bear fruit.  So date growers do their pollinating by hand. 

Dates are often called Nature's Candy because of their sweet taste and caramel flavor.  It also contains some valuable nutrients.  Dates are a very good source of potassium, which may turn out to be a valuable tool in controlling high blood pressure.

The best way to store a date is in the refrigerator, in an air-tight container.  They'll last there for about eight months. 

The actual date harvest takes place in the fall, but they're in the supermarket all year round.

When I was a kid and lucky enough to spend a day at the beach, lunch always seemed to be an unnecessary interruption.  And the worst part was that after lunch, my mother wouldn't let me go back into the water.  It was always this lecture about the dangers of swimming after eating.

As I got older, I found it harder and harder to believe that the weight of a bacon-lettuce-and- tomato sandwich was going to sink me.  But my mother had given me some pretty good advice and so I hung on. 

Eventually I discovered that there was considerable scientific evidence for her recommendations. 

When you eat, your system supplies an enormous amount of blood to the center of your body to help with digestion.  It draws that blood from your extremities.  Your brain, your arms, your legs.  The reduced blood supply in your brain makes it harder for you to think clearly and the reduced blood supply in your arms and legs increases your chances of getting muscle cramps. 

So there you are, swimming along in the ocean, not thinking clearly, and getting muscle cramps.  It makes a good case for waiting about an hour between eating and swimming.  That's okay with me.  The idea of taking a short siesta under the palms on the beach sounds pretty good.  But I'm sure that your idea of riveting and entertaining television is not watching me taking a nap.  So I asked my friend Brownie Brown to take you on a tour of the island.  Brownie is a very famous disc jockey in this part of the world and a reputed genius at guiding tours.  So, I'll see you when you get back.

BROWN:  Allow me to say a most pleasant good afternoon, everyone.  My name is Brownie, I am a taxi driver, I'm a disk jockey, I am a well-known person here on the island and I welcome you and thank you for coming and we're going to have ourselves a wonderful time on this little tour here in St. Thomas.  Good t’ing.

We're going to pass up through an area called the Back Street.  These old buildings in this area here, are more than 100 years old.  Remember the United States bought these islands from Denmark in 1917.  Before that, we were all Danes.  Now we are all American citizens.

We're going to take a little ride up to the Jewish Synagogue.  The Jewish Synagogue is the oldest Synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.  Now this Synagogue still has the sand on the floor.  In a lot of words but I'm going to break it down for you, this is in memory of all the Jewish people that crossed the desert ... that took forty years to cross the desert.  So the sand that is there is in memory of all these people that crossed the desert many many years ago.  Good t’ing.  So just a capsule explanation of the reason why the sand is on the floor.

In front of us, we're going to see Fort Christian.  It was first used for a Moravian priest and then it became a fort and it was a police station for many, many, many, many years and a jail.  Right now it is being used as a museum.

We're entering into an area that I really like.  It's called French Village or French Town.  A French settlement; they have a lot of restaurants in this area.  We're passing one just as we go by here.  The Normandie Bar.   Very good and very popular.  All the restaurants on the island, they have to be good because the competition is stiff. 

These are the homes of the French people here on the island and most of these people build their own homes.  And some of the nicest people you want to meet.

Okay, we're going downhill now into the Megan’s Bay area.  When we get onto the beach you will see one of the most beautiful sights.  Megan's Bay.  Something I'm very proud of.  You've got to come and spend some time here.  I know what I'm telling you.  And that definitely will be good t’ing.

Megan's Bay Beach is shaped like a heart.  That, along with sixty-eight acres of land, belongs to the people of the Virgin Islands.  That's why you'll never see a hotel or anything built down there.  Because we don't want ... we want it just the way it is.  We are on Megan's Bay Beach.  You will see most of the native people come here and practically everybody comes here on this beach.

I think there's a navy ship in town, that's why you see all these guys from here.


BROWN:  Oh, there’s my family -- hello, sweetheart. Good t’ing.  Oh, my kid should be over there.  Isn’t that something?  My whole family's over there.  Man!  That's the way it is.  Megan's Bay is the place.  Good thing.  That's the way we like to do it. 

Well, that is a small part of St. Thomas as you've just seen.  I hope you enjoyed our little tour.  I want ya'll to come to my island of St. Thomas and to the Virgin Islands.  It was just a little piece that you saw.  I know you're going to enjoy it when you come.  So you folks, I'm going to let you off now, and please, go wake up Burt.  Wake him up and tell him Brownie say, Good t’ing.

MAN:  Burt!  Burt!!

BURT WOLF:  Ah, you’re back!  I've been coming to the U.S. Virgin Islands for thirty years, so Brownie's taken me on that tour before.  But I thought you'd enjoy it.

But now, how about some water sports?

Good t’ing!

BURT WOLF:  The European explorers of the Caribbean spent a great deal of effort describing everything that grew in the New World.  But they never said anything about the coconut.  It appears that the coconut came to the Americas from the South Pacific after the landing of Columbus.  For one-third of the world's population, the coconut is a very important food, especially for people living in the tropics.

Fabrice Dubuc is a French pastry chef who performs his art at the Grand Palazzo Hotel.  His specialty is adapting classic recipes to local ingredients.  These coconut drop cookies are a delicious example.

Five cups of grated coconut go into a bowl, followed by five cups of sugar, six eggs, two ounces of melted butter, a little vanilla extract and a splash of rum.  That's mixed together and given a one hour rest in the refrigerator.  When the dough comes out, it's rolled into balls about an inch in diameter, placed on a parchment-covered baking sheet and baked in a 375 degree oven for ten minutes.  Out of the oven, a light dusting of powdered sugar, and they're ready.

During the last few years there's been a lot of talk about coconuts because coconuts are high in saturated fat and there appears to be a very direct relationship between a diet that is high in saturated fat and heart disease.  But you've got to remember, there are no bad foods and there are no good foods.  There are just inappropriate amounts.  Scientists are telling us that we can take five to ten percent of our daily calories in saturated fat and still be okay.  So, with these cookies and with everything else, moderation is the word.

BURT WOLF: Excuse me, is this where I buy a ticket on the ferry?

WOMAN:  Yes it is.

BURT WOLF:  Great.  How much is a round-trip?

WOMAN:  Six dollars.

BURT WOLF:  Six dollars.  Great thing about the U.S. Virgin Islands, they use the same money as we do in the states.  Here you go.

WOMAN:  Thank you.

BURT WOLF:  Wonderful.  By the way, where does the ferry go?

WOMAN:  To St. John.

BURT WOLF:  Great!  That's where I'm going!

 At the Eastern end of St. Thomas is the town of Red Hook, a major anchorage for local yachtsmen and the point of departure for the St. Thomas to St. John ferry. 

A twenty minute trip across Pillsbury Sound will bring you to the town of Cruz Bay, the metropolitan center of St. John... a dramatic example of what a commercial hub can be like if the primary desire of the developers is to keep the neighborhood an unspoiled paradise.

This is the world headquarters for Relaxing-R-Us.  Lawrence Rockefeller, who you might remember from the song “as rich as Rockefeller,” bought the island and in 1956 donated it to the U.S. government so they could turn two-thirds of it into a national park. 

About 3,000 people live on the edges of St. John.  The central area is still wild and wonderful. 

Ranger Paul Thomas of the U.S. National Park Service has agreed to introduce us to the island.

THOMAS:   ... take a good look at what we have here on St. John.  Because the first time you came in, you came by boat.  Kind of missed all the action by not being on land.  Okay.

Now, right now we're here in Cruz Bay, the Visitors’ Center, come around the hill and then we stop at Solomon Beach.  You can only get there by ... hiking or by boat.  No vehicle access, so there's no carbon monoxide to mess up your day.

After we come back into Cruz Bay, we're going to jump into our vehicle and we're going to head out along the North Shore Road.  Fantastic scenic driving.  One of the first beaches we're going to run into is Hawksnest, which is very nice for snorkeling and not too crowded.  Mainly you would find just local people at Hawksnest.  But it's not as beautiful as about three reefs inside the bay which are, of course, fantastic snorkeling.

From Hawksnest we head out over in Trunk Bay.  Now Trunk Bay is probably world-famous because of the underwater trail.  And it's a series of markers that you find underneath along the reef that tells you what you're looking at.  And explains it all to you.  From Trunk Bay, we head over into Cinnamon Bay.  That's an area that I love.  There's a series of trails ... there's a little trail that winds through the ruins because Cinnamon Bay was also a site of one of the old sugar plantations.

And then there's a nice trail that takes you up on to Centerline Road, crosses through the whole island from west all the way to the east.   There's also a trail that's not featured on the map that takes you up to America Hill.

Now there's the ruins of the Great House of the Cinnamon Bay Plantation that’s up there.  Folklore has it that the house is haunted.  Now you're welcome to hike up there, Burt, but I'm not coming with you.  Okay?

BURT WOLF:  (LAUGHING)  You mean to tell me that the National Park Service doesn't have a ghostbusting facility?

THOMAS:  No we don't.  And I don't plan to start one either.

BURT WOLF:  That's it from the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and drink at Burt Wolf's Table.