Burt Wolf's Table: St. Croix - #221

BURT WOLF:   St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Relaxed and easy-going with one of the most beautiful old towns in the Caribbean.  We'll tour a fascinating botanical garden ... find out what the galley cooks on sailboats can teach us about making life easier in our kitchens... and learn some recipes that are simple to prepare and taste great.  So join me on the island of St. Croix at Burt Wolf's Table.

During his second voyage in 1493, Columbus came upon this group of islands and named them the Virgin Islands after the legend of St. Ursula.  The story tells of a pagan prince who demanded the hand of Ursula in marriage.  Ursula was the beautiful daughter of the King of Britain ... but she was not too happy about marrying a pagan prince because he had pledged herself to a life of saintliness. 

Anyway, to save her old man and his kingdom ... she agreed to marry the prince.  However, there was a catch.  Eleven thousand of the most beautiful virgins from the two kingdoms had to come and live with her for three years.  And during those three years she trained them into an army of amazons.

Well, when the pagan prince heard about this. he was furious!  And he took his own army and went into battle against the amazons.  The battle is said to have taken place during the year 238 outside the German city of Cologne.  And, unfortunately, all of the virgins were martyred.

When Columbus saw the beauty of these islands they reminded him of the legend of St. Ursula ... and he called them the Virgin Islands.  What a story!  And what a group of islands.  There are actually dozens of islands in the group, but the three most famous are St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas.

This is St. Croix.  It's the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Twenty-six miles long and six miles wide ... with a surface of about eighty square miles.  And most of those square miles are flat enough for farming, which is not true for St. Thomas and St. John.  As a result, St. Croix developed as an agricultural base.

At first it was home to the Arowak, Taino and Caribe tribes that had come up here from South America.  Then the Spanish came in ... but when they had trouble controlling their widespread interests in the Caribbean it gave a chance to the French.  The Knights of Malta opened up a branch office ... the Dutch were here ... and for over two hundred years, the Danish were in charge.

The area was known as the Danish West Indies until 1917 when the United Sates government plunked down twenty-five million dollars in gold and purchased the property from Denmark.  Acre for acre it's the most money that the federal government has ever paid for land ... but it was well worth it.

The main town on the island of St. Croix is Christiansted.  And it is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled towns in the Caribbean.  During the 1700's it was a major port in the sugar trade.  And many of the buildings that were constructed during that period are still standing.  It's the kind of town that lends itself to a walking tour which usually starts from the old Scale House.

Today, it's the home of the Visitor's Bureau.  But in the old days it was the spot where commodities for commercial shipment came in to get a true weight on the official scale.  True weight ... a subject dear to my heart ... and to my heart doctor.  And though I am technically not a commodity for sale ... I am very much interested in my true weight.

What someone should or should not weigh these days is certainly open to debate.  When I was a kid, the Metropolitan Life Insurance scales were the last word and whatever they said, we believed.  But these days there are number of other organizations with very dependable information ... and I leave the determination of your proper weight to you.

I will use the Scale House to give you some tips on how to check your proper weight.  First of all, if you're really serious about knowing what you're weighing you should use a balanced scale ... you know, the one with a bar and a couple of little weights that slide up and back.  That's much more accurate than a spring scale.

Second, you should try to weigh yourself on the same day of the week each week and at the same time of that day.  Your weight can really bounce around within the day and within the days of the week.  I always weigh more on Sunday night.

There's a general rule of thumb as to how many calories you should take in each day to maintain, gain or lose weight.  Every pound of body weight requires ten calories per day to stay in place.  So if your proper weight is a hundred and fifty pounds ... fifteen hundred calories per day will keep you there.  If you take in more calories, your weight will gradually go up.  If you take in fewer calories, your weight will gradually go down.

But please remember, ten calories per pound per day is just a general rule.  Your exercise level can have a great effect.  It's just a way of keeping the picture in scale.

Directly across the street from the old Scale House is the old Customs House ... where they keep track of old customs, like saying “please” and “thank you,” eating together like a family ... but most important ... being a member of Congress and not being interested in ripping everybody off for your own benefit or the benefit of your friends.  You know, those old customs that are so hard to come by.

These days the building is the home of the National Park Service, who are doing a great job watching out after the old fort and the area around it.

The fort was built by the Danish in the 1740's as part of a defense plan for the port.  Never actually saw any military action because the Danish knew that it wouldn't hold up very well.  Every time there was a powerful wind, it fell apart.  It's an interesting place to visit and it has some great views of the area.

Just down the street is the Christian Hendricks Market Square.  It was set up in 1735, and every Saturday it is packed with farmers and vendors ... .all whom are offering their produce and goods at real bargain prices.  Unfortunately, this is not Saturday ... it's actually Thursday ... I'm here ... my camera crew is here ...that's pretty much it.  There was a chicken here earlier but she left.  On Saturdays, however, this place is awesome.


Christiansted also has some excellent places to eat and drink.   There's the Top Hat, which has been run by Bent Rasmussen and his wife Hannah, who came here from Denmark in the 1960's.  This restaurant is probably the strongest Danish influence still on the island. 

The town is filled with small eateries that occupy picturesque courtyards.  St. Croix, like all of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a duty-free port with great places to shop. 

One of the most interesting is the store belonging to clothing designer Wayne James. 

His real love is anything that reflects the history of the Virgin Islands.  He's even developed a line of seasonings. 

There are a number of elements that give each regional cuisine its distinct flavors.  And the most important are the seasonings.  When we think about the flavor of Louisiana, what comes through most often is cayenne.  In Italy it's oregano ... and sesame is regularly associated with the taste of China.

Mike Smith is the executive chef at the Brass Parrot Restaurant at the Buccaneer Resort here on St. Croix.  And he's been studying the use of seasoning by world latitude.  He sees a pattern of spices based on the area's relationship to the equator ... and he is testing his theory in his kitchen.

MIKE SMITH:   Hello!  Welcome.

BURT WOLF:   Now, normally Mike cooks in a regular restaurant kitchen ... but as an accommodation to the shortness of my visit and the really great weather ... today we're gonna do our cooking on the beach.  Now ... what we're gonna cook is a fillet of fish that's being flavored by the seasonings that are traditional to this area's world latitude.

The seasoning mixture is made from a half cup of chopped peanuts ... a half cup of ground coffee beans ... and a quarter cup of curry powder.  Yeah ... I said ground coffee beans ... I think you'll just have to trust me on this one.  The fish filets get coated with that mixture on both sides.

MIKE SMITH:   To the oven, Burt.  Ten minutes three hundred and fifty degrees.

BURT WOLF:   Right. 

A white bean stew goes onto the plate.  The fish returns from the oven and goes onto the beans . the dish is finished off with two sauces.  One made from a puree of cooked red peppers ... mixed with a little sherry ... and the other from yellow peppers.

When Mike Smith first started cooking at the Buccaneer Resort he noticed that dried beans and lentils were a regular part of the diet ... and they had been a part of the diet of the people on St. Croix for hundreds of years. 

The reason is very simple ... the people who came here came by way of a long ocean voyage. And when they got to this island community they had to be sure that their food supply would store for long periods of time without spoiling.  They also had to get the most nutrition for the least costs.  Dried peas and lentils will store indefinitely.  And when it comes to good nutrition for low cost, dried peas and lentils are unbeatable.

Today, Mike's making an orange and lentil stew.  A little oil goes into a saute pan ... some small pieces of carrots, celery and onion are added.  Cook together for about five minutes.  Two cups of lentils and a cup of chicken stock.  Everything simmers for an hour and a half.  Meanwhile, an orange is sectioned and some basil leaves are sliced.  Both are added to the lentils when they come of the heat.  And, finally, the juice of lemon.  Nice dish.

The lentil is one of the first foods brought under cultivation.  The ancient Greeks had them as part of their diet ... and so did the Romans.  Lentils are very valuable from the point of view of good nutrition.  But they are also very inexpensive.  In ancient times if you became rich but still ate lentils it was a sign that you had not lost touch with reality and become a snob.

Today almost all of the lentils available in the United States come from the northwest ... from an area that spans between the border between Washington State and Idaho.  It's called the Palouse, which is a French word meaning “green lawn.”  Not a bad name for an area that's very busy growing peas and lentils. 

Lentils are packed with potassium and protein and a substance called foliate or folic acid.  A lot of research has come in during the last few years that indicate the importance of folic acid in the diet of pregnant women.  And there are group of organizations that are interested in the health of the United States ... like the March of Dimes ... who very busy spreading the information on how important folic acid is. 

The Bible says that Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.  Now, from a financial point of view, that may not have been the best deal.  But when it comes to nutrition, Esau was moving in the right direction.

The Danish purchased St. Croix from the French in 1733.  They were looking for good agritcultural land for the development of sugar plantations ... and boy, were they right on target. 

St. Croix's rich soil and tropical weather are ideal for plants.  These days there is virtually no sugar grown on the island ... but the environment is put to great use at the St. George Village Botanical Garden.  The gardens were an Arowak tribal village in one hundred A.D. ... then a Danish sugar plantation ... a cattle ranch ... and since 1972, the Botanical Garden.

The garden's sixteen acres of lush tropical vegetation are looked after by Ken Jones ... the horticulturalist of the facility. 

KEN JONES:   This is an interesting tree also.  This strange looking thing that I'm holding in my hand looks like a sausage ... actually it's the seed pod off of this tree. 

BURT WOLF:   A sausage tree.  What a wonderful idea.  Now, what you need over here is a pizza tree right next to the sausage tree and I bet you Domino would put up the money for the research.

KEN JONES:   I thought it was being funded by a cheese company.


BURT WOLF:   What else is growing along here?

KEN JONES:   Right now we're in the cactus garden ... and we have over a hudnred different species of cacti and succulents in here.  This particular plant is an Agave ... and it's the source of sisle hemp.

BURT WOLF:   Cause they make a sisle rug from ... 

KEN JONES:   Uh-huh.

BURT WOLF:   Interesting.

KEN JONES:   And also it's the source of tequila as well.


KEN JONES:   Next, we're gonna take a look at a tree over on the other side that has a really interesting history behind it.  It's called a Fish Poison tree ... and the Indians used to mash up the leaves of this tree and then throw it in a pond containing fish.  aN alkaloid in the leaves would stun the fish ... they'd raise up to the surface, float ... and the Indians would be able to take them home for dinner.

BURT WOLF:   It's like nature's fish net.

KEN JONES:   Exactly.


BURT WOLF:   What an extraordinary thing.

KEN JONES:   Exactly.

BURT WOLF:   The slogan on the license plates of the U.S. Virgin Islands reads "The American Paradise."  And one thing that makes you feel that you've arrived in a bliss-filled environment are the flowers.  There are yellow trumpet flowers, hibiscus, bougainvillea; it's like living in the center of a bouquet ... with each flower contributing its sweet perfume.

Flowers have always been a great source of beauty in man's environment, as well as the origin of many of our perfumes.  But flowers have also been an important part of gastronomy.  The different aroma of each flower has a culinary significance. 

It's the aroma-filled nectar of a flower that gives honey its flavor and color.  There are over three hundred honeys available ... and each one comes from a different flower.  The blossoms that the bees visit affect the color range.  It goes from nearly colorless to dark brown.  And the flavors vary from light and mild to quite intense.  As a general rule, the lighter the color of the honey, the milder the flavor.

The most common floral source for honey in the United States is clover.  But you'll also find orange blossom ... wild lower ... tupelo ... alfalfa ... and buckwheat.  Alfalfa and buckwheat ... interesting ... never really occurred to me that honey was named after the Little Rascals. 

Honey has an enormous color range and each of those colors are associated with a different flavor.  The Bible says that paradise is the land of milk and honey.  And that's because milk and honey are the only two foods produced by other animal life forms that are ready to eat for human beings.  And I guess “no cooking necessary” was always a little bit of paradise.

The cone-shaped towers that dot the landscape of St. Croix are monumental reminders of the island's agricultural past.  They are the remains of windmills that were used to power grinders that crushed sugar cane.  

When the Danish brought St. Croix from the French, they turned it into one of the most important sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean.  Europe had developed an almost insatiable sweet tooth.  And the sugar plantations of the West Indies became the source of their satisfaction.  It also became the source of extraordinary wealth for the planters.

Today, on the west end of St. Croix there is an excellent restoration of a plantation from the 1700's known as Estate Whim.  It has a team of well-informed guides to take you through the property and explain its history.

THELMA CLARK:   Now, in those days ... they didn't have machinery to cut the sugar cane ... people actually had to do it themselves.  And I can remember as a child ... I did a lot of tying the bundles of sugar cane where my mother had leased some land from the Shabirs.  And, I tell you, that was a lot of work.

Now all you do when that sugar cane is ripe ... you get a knife ... of course, in my days I didn't need a  knife ... because I was young and my teeth was good ...


THELMA CLARK:   Today I need a knife.  But in those days you just peel it ... and you throw away the top ... and you suck the juice from it.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, yeah.

THELMA CLARK:   And you got your sugar juice.

BURT WOLF:   Beautiful.



THELMA CLARK:   Now, they would feed the sugar cane through these rollers which crushes the sugar cane ... and it extract the juice.

BURT WOLF:   The rollers were powered by the windmill.

THELMA CLARK:   That's right.

BURT WOLF:   The juices would come out.


BURT WOLF:   And drain away.

THELMA CLARK:   That's right ... to a different division.  And then it will go again to another boiling house ... but there it remains there to be crystalized ...

BURT WOLF:   First it was put into big vats and boiled?

THELMA CLARK:   That's right ... uh-huh.  And you will see that when you go to the Great House.

BURT WOLF:   Alright.  Let's go to the Great House.  (PAUSE)  On days when there was no wind there would be ... uh ... horses ...

THELMA CLARK:   Oh, yes.  Animals such as ox and donkey mules and so on ... helped to do that when the wind was slow.  Now, going up this stairway here to the gallery ... planters and traders would come up the stairway and they would do their business in here. 

Now, we're entering into the dining room.  Now, this Great House was not built typical West Indian.  It is built European style.  Now, as we step into the other room which is the front room ... I'd like to point out ... these rocker chairs.  They are one of our local West Indian furniture.  They were made from the mahogany here and caned here.

Now, this is a child's rocker.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, that's so cute!

THELMA CLARK:   It is.  And both of these are the lady's rocker.  And the huge one is the gentleman's rocker.

BURT WOLF:   Uh-huh.  It's like the three little bears. 

THELMA CLARK:   That's right.

BURT WOLF:   There's different sized seat for each people.

THELMA CLARK:   That's true.

BURT WOLF:   I never saw that.

THELMA CLARK:   Good.  I'd also like you to notice the upside-down tray ceiling.  You see, back in those days they had no air condition ... and the height, which is sixteen and a half to seventeen feet ... the outer walls were three feet thick.  So all that made it easy for the air to flow.  And even in the summer months, this house is fairly nice and cool.

BURT WOLF:   So if you design a house properly and build it properly you save all that energy of the electric ...

THELMA CLARK:   Exactly.

BURT WOLF:   ... air conditioning.


BURT WOLF:   And the Whim Estate is not the only property on St. Croix with a fascinating history ... the Buccaneer Resort is a classic Caribbean property in the great tradition of the tropical resort. 

In 1653 this area was the site of the castle of Martel.  Martel was a Knight of Malta who decided to set up his west coast office on St. Croix.  It was set up on the back of the hill facing the area that's now the pool.  Of course, there was no pool at the time.  Guys like Martel wouldn't even take a bath, much less go swimming.  And the reason he set it up on the back was because he wanted to hide it from the pirates who were sailing along in the front.  Those days were tough for knights.

When the Danes bought the island in the 1700's, the Danish Governor built his home here.  He also put in a sugar mill.  Later on it was used to grow cotton ... and still later as a cattle ranch.  In 1948, the Armstrong family turned it into a guest house with eleven rooms. 

These days the ninth generation of the family operates the property which has a championship eighteen hole golf course ... tennis courts ... three separate beach coves ... three hundred acres of tropical vegetation and some great food.


The great agricultural estates of the Caribbean had only one objective.  To grow and process as much sugar cane as possible.  And the first commercially available product of the procedure was molasses, a valuable ingredient on its own. 

Michael uses molasses to make a basting and barbeque sauce that adds a rich flavor to just about anything.  The sauce starts with the juice of six limes ... a quarter cup of molasses gets whisked in ... a half cup of ketchup ... a quarter cup of vegetable oil ... and a little allspice ... a little chili powder and some salt and pepper.

At this point Mike usually adds a few drops of tabasco ... but someone has taken the tabasco bottle off the dock ... and quite frankly, we're just too lazy to go up the hill to the kitchen to get it.  Hey, nobody's perfect!

We now have the basting sauce.  Half gets held aside, and a little more oil added to what's left.  The chicken goes in for half an hour ... then heads for the barbeque.  The original basting sauce is then used on the chicken.  A few slices of sauteed sweet potato go onto a serving plate ... and when the chicken is fully cooked it goes on top.


The first Europeans to set foot on what is now the island of St. Croix were a couple of sailors who came ashore from Christopher Columbus's ship during his second voyage in 1493.  Since then there has been considerable Spanish influence on the island's history.  Not the least of which can be found in the kitchens.

Today Mike is preparing a gazpacho, which is a classic soup in Latin countries.  But Mike makes his with pineapple, which produces a refreshing and interesting soup.

A ripe sweet pineapple is peeled, cored, sliced into chunks and placed into a blender.  A little vegetable oil goes in and a splash of tabasco.  And a pinch of salt.  The top goes on ... and everything is blended into a smooth puree.  A quarter cup of fresh mint leaves are added and blended.  Everything goes into a bowl.  A minced red onion is added ... a minced red pepper ... and a minced green pepper.

And now ... for a stirring experience.  And into a serving bowl with a garnish of a mint and yogurt puree.  That's it!

When I was in my late twenties I took all of my life savings and a considerable bank loan and put the money into a purchase of a sailboat.  I learned quite a bit from the experience.  The first thing I learned is the truth of the old saying that “a boat is a large hole in the water into which you throw money.”

I also learned how wonderful it is to get away from everything and feel the real rhythm of nature ... the sky and the sea.  To wake up because of the sun and not because of your alarm clock.  And to go to sleep because of the moon and not the Tonight Show. 

I also learned a lot about making good food under bad conditions ... and a lot of what I learned in the galleys at sea can be applied to the  kitchen.  Here are a couple examples of what I mean.

Breakfast is our most important meal.  But not everyone is ready to do much cooking first thing in the morning.  So do a little the night before.  Good old-style oatmeal is one of my favorite breakfasts and one of the healthiest too.  Oats appear to have the ability to lower cholesterol levels. 

Instead of facing twenty minutes over a simmering saucepan in the morning ... I put the oats and boiling water into a wide-mouthed insulated bottle ... close it up and let it cook over night.  In the morning, my oatmeal is ready.  A good thing for the office or the ocean.

When you're pouring something into a glass or a cup, do the job over the sink.  If anything spills you save the cleanup work and the surface of your counter. 

Cookie dough freezes well, so mix up a batch of your favorite cookie dough ... roll it out into portion sized balls ... and freeze them.  And keep the balls frozen until you're ready to bake them off. 

And something that works well for picnics as well as boating is to freeze water and juices before you start out on your trip.  You'll save ice and energy.

Finally, a tip that sounds totally off the wall but really works.  One of the best sources of rood for a yachtsman is the fish you catch while you're cruising.  But it can be a real messy job to kill a fish that's flopping around on your deck.  A great way to render the denizens of the deep into a state of total unconsciousness and to do it really easily is to pour vodka on their gills ... they'll just pass out.  Strange ... but true.


Just off the island of St. Croix is Buck Island Reef.  It's a national park that covers over eight hundred and fifty acres, which include some outstanding beaches.  It's also home to the only national park that is underwater.  The reef has two major underwater trails with signs that tell you what you're looking at. 

You can go along with a snorkel, which is just a pipe to breathe through while your face is in the water... or if you're qualified, you can go down with scuba gear.  And if you're not a qualified scuba diver ... St. Croix has a bunch of scuba instructors who will teach you how it's done.

Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat.

I'm Burt Wolf.