Carla's Corner: Tasting the Local Love

When I think of the Caribbean, my mind doesn't go to Italy, and my palate doesn't crave French cuisine. I recently vacationed with a group in St. John, USVI, and all I could think about when I arrived was going where the locals go—some hole-in-the-wall that served the best fried fish, peas 'n rice and plantains. In essence, I wanted to seek out the local love and taste the culture through the food. I was surprised how much effort it took to get to local fare. Most locals want to direct you to the spots that show off how much they are like the mainland—French, Italian and high-end restaurants. St. John has attracted chefs from all over the world, and stepping into these fine restaurants you really could be anywhere. Well, I didn't want to be anywhere else in the world. I wanted to be in, and experience, the Caribbean. More specifically, St. John.

The first local place we were taken to was called Miss Lucy's. You won't find Goat Stew here (Miss Lucy rescues them). The food was okay. There was no local fish available, but I did have a memorable, rustic Pumpkin Stew with spaghetti. (Traditionally you’ll find dumplings in this stew.) Since the West Indian pumpkin can be found locally, I went in search of one. I found a partial one (it’s conveniently sold in chunks) at a local veggie stand.

So, let's fast-forward to when I found the spot, the hole...the ONE. I realize it's different for everyone, but I found this wonderful local experience at a stand called Sheila's Pot. Sheila is a strong Caribbean woman, a healer, and the chef/owner of her own stand for 30 years. I spoke to locals who recalled her stand getting its start, as well as being the epicenter of the popular Friday night "fish fry," which has long since ended. She starts cooking at seven in the morning, and she's at the stand until around 12:30. You can get what she's got until it's gone. She hand writes the long list of offerings on a blackboard. The day I was there the list included, Curry Chicken, Stewed Chicken, Fried Fish (which is a whole Red Hind in a spicy sauce), Sauteed Shrimp, Lamb and a Beef dish. You don't choose your sides, you get all of them—every single starch. The list includes, macaroni and cheese, yellow rice, peas (not pigeon) and carrots, boiled plantains, coleslaw and potato stuffing (this looks like mashed sweet potatoes, but it's made with white potatoes, tomato paste, brown sugar and other spices). I am NOT kidding. As I watched Sheila put my fish plate together, I moaned and drooled until it was in my hot little hands. The Styrofoam container was heavy and busting at the seams. It cost $15 for what would likely be two meals for most. I happen to have a big appetite, so it was just one for me (tee hee). Unfortunately, I forgot to take a pic of the container when I got it—I was too excited to dig in. When I say I could taste the love, I'm telling you it tasted like my Granny made it. Tas-ty!

You may not be travelling to the Caribbean anytime soon, but I would like to encourage each of you to search out the local fare whenever and wherever you travel. Make sure you hit the spots where the locals go, not the tourist traps. I was also inspired enough to pick up a local cookbook. At some time in the future, I will share my interpretation of one or more of the recipes.

Until next time... Toodles!


Carla Hall was a finalist on Top Chef: Season 5 and runs Alchemy Caterers in Washington, D.C.

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