"If you can't cook good, you can't get a husband in the West Indies," said Faye Lindqvist. Lindqvist, who is from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, not only "cooks good," but cooks smart, the way island women must now that many of them work and have to cope with high prices for foods that were once inexpensive.
Lindqvist is district manager of the Virgin Islands division of tourism on St. Croix. Food is expensive there because much of it has to be flown in, she said. Little beef is consumed on the island, and most of it is imported. "There is some good local beef available, but it is limited," Lindqvist said. Islanders are more accustomed to eating goat, chicken and fish.
"In the Virgin Islands in general, people eat a lot of fish. They catch it every day and bring it in," Lindqvist said. Fish and chicken, however, are no longer as cheap as they once were. For a special occasion such as Christmas, the inhabitants would have roast pork or roast goat.
Lindqvist came to The Times' Test Kitchen wearing the traditional costume of St. Croix, a peasant blouse, bouffant plaid skirt and plaid head tie crowned with a large bow. For everyday wear, the headdress is toned down by eliminating the bow. The costume stems from the 19th Century, she said, and for general use has been supplanted by contemporary Western dress.
Lindqvist's mission at The Times was to show how Crucians (the name for inhabitants of St. Croix) cook, which is with a lot of seasoning. A working woman might season the fish for the evening meal before going to her job in order to give the flavors plenty of time to penetrate, she said. Lindqvist provided the recipe for a typical homemade seasoning blend that includes such fresh aromatics as celery leaf, parsley and thyme. The addition of cardamom to the blend probably stems from contact with the Indian community of Trinidad, she said.
Lindqvist used the seasoning mixture to prepare fish fillets for Boiled Fish and Fungi. That sounds like a tasteless dish, but in her hands it became a delightful presentation of poached fish with a buttery sauce strong on lime and a bit piquant with serrano chile. "In the West Indies they don't like bland food," she observed.
The fungi in the title has nothing to do with mushrooms. It is the island name for cooked cornmeal, which Lindqvist molded in a bowl and placed on the platter along with the fish, sliced avocado, tomato and lime.
"This dish is very popular now," said Lindqvist. "You can make it very quickly for dinner. It's something we like, and it's an inexpensive meal." Islanders also use cornmeal to make deep-fried johnnycakes, served in place of ordinary bread as an accompaniment to a meal.
Some traditional Crucian foods have declined in usage. Guava desserts are seen less frequently because the trees have been torn out. Salt fish, no longer a staple of the diet, still appears in a variety of dishes, including Salt Fish Gundi, an appetizer that is served with crackers. The word gundi indicates a mixture of the fish with other ingredients, Lindqvist said. Another name for the same dish is pick-up salt fish. "Pick-up" does not refer to eating with the fingers but to picking the fish from the bones, she explained.
Combined With Ham
In another recipe, salt fish is combined with ham to season rice. Like the seasoning blend, this recipe calls for cardamom, again reflecting inter-island recipe trading.
The U.S. Virgin Islands were acquired in 1917 from Denmark. Lindqvist, whose ancestors include a Danish great grandfather, traces her own family back four generations on St. Croix. "My father's family came to the islands as pirates," she said.
Lindqvist and her sister once ran a bakery, producing such typical West Indian desserts as soursop cake. Making the cake is a dying art, Lindqvist said. At present, the soursop (called guanabana in Mexico) is more frequently used in ice cream, custard and to make a drink. A tranquilizing tea is brewed from the leaves of the plant, she said.
Popular desserts on the island now are fruit tarts and cakes. "All West Indies women are taught to make them," Lindqvist said.
BOILED FISH AND FUNGI
2 1/2 pounds fish fillets
1 tablespoon Crucian Salt Seasoning
1 small onion, sliced
2 or 3 sprigs fresh thyme
Juice of 3 limes
2 tablespoons oil
4 to 5 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, sliced
1 serrano chile, sliced
Sprinkle fish fillets on each side with Crucian Salt Seasoning. Place in refrigerator to marinate 4 hours. When ready to cook, place fillets in large skillet and add boiling water to cover. Add small onion, thyme and juice of 1 lime. Bring to boil and boil 7 minutes. Remove fish from skillet, place on heated serving platter and keep warm. Reserve 1/2 cup fish cooking liquid.