It’s easy to imagine early European colonists thinking they’d sailed off the side of the earth and landed in heaven as their boats approached the shores of what are now called the U.S. Virgin Islands. How else could they have explained what they saw in front of them? Lush hills springing out of the ocean, fertile and inviting, a paradise of vibrant greens and unfamiliar tropical plants and fruits. Even today the sight has a similar effect on first-time visitors gazing out of airplane windows. As we descended from the clouds over the Caribbean Sea into St. Thomas one early November afternoon, a fellow passenger on my flight couldn’t hold in her “ohh” at the sight below.
I’ve been visiting St. Thomas since I was a young girl—my mother grew up on the island and some of her family still resides there—but every time I come back, it always feels like I’m seeing that view over Charlotte Amalie and the sparkling azure bay for the first time. There’s a reason more than 2 million tourists visit the USVI each year: The main islands of St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix have everything the quintessential Caribbean trip requires—beautiful scenery, warm weather, picture-perfect beaches.
But this doesn’t tell the full story, or my story, of these islands. Whenever I visit, my plans revolve less around beaches and more around food—local dishes that I can’t find anywhere else: tender conch stewed in butter sauce; deep-fried johnnycakes served with fried fish and a buttery bell pepper sauce; and fungi (pronounced foon-jee), a rich, starchy, cornmeal-and-okra side dish. I grew up eating these specialties—they’re part of my personal narrative—and every bite is an edible history lesson about the islands. The many people who have called the USVI home have left bits of their story in every morsel: the Taino and Arawak Indigenous people, the Danish and French colonists, and the enslaved Africans they brought with them. Today, chefs are blending those influences to create a modern cuisine that highlights this past while embracing the present.
Set in St. Thomas’s brightly painted Royal Dane Mall, home to jewelry stores and souvenir shops, Gladys’ Cafe is a stalwart of USVI cuisine. The casual and homey restaurant owned by Gladys Isles Jones has been open since 1990. It’s long been a favorite of my family’s and is always one of my first stops. Among the menu’s more tourist-friendly lunch staples and breakfast plates are dishes that display the blend of cultures. Jones’s pan-fried local grouper with creole sauce—made from tomatoes and fresh herbs and combining French influences with ingredients native to the island—is legendary, and I always pair it with a cup of callaloo. Kalaloo, as it’s spelled on her menu, is a hearty soup of stewed callaloo greens (grown all over the Caribbean) flavored with garlic and onions and sometimes studded with lobster, scallops, or, as at Gladys’ Cafe, smoked turkey. Callaloo is a signature St. Thomas dish, Jones tells me one night after the restaurant has closed. “It’s a mixture because you have a mix of people from all over here,” she says. The soup is a simplified descendant of Nigerian efo riro, or stewed spinach cooked with a pepper sauce, which was brought to the island by enslaved Africans. Jones, who emigrated to St. Thomas from Antigua in 1969, learned to cook the dish when she moved here. She has since perfected it.
“In the Caribbean, we are a people created from many peoples,” says Jessica Geller, board member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the island’s culture. European colonists and travelers along the spice trade route brought ingredients from all over the world to the Virgin Islands, she says. Recipes, cooking techniques, and taste memories from West Africa made the journey to these islands during the slave trade too.
The culinary influences of the USVI’s first inhabitants are especially important to chef Digby Stridiron, whose acclaimed St. Croix restaurant, Braata, which closed last year due to the pandemic, took a contemporary look at Caribbean food and its history. (A new restaurant on St. Thomas is in the works.) “There’s so many hands that have been put in the pot,” he says, but it’s the Taino and Arawak Indigenous peoples that he draws from most in his own cooking. “Those two groups of people are who I see when I look in the mirror and when I look at the food.” One of the most important dishes in that heritage is conch in butter sauce, a classic found throughout the islands, in which the sea snail is stewed with butter, Scotch bonnets, onion, thyme, tomatoes, and occasionally paprika and curry powder. Stridiron often serves the dish with stuffing, a sweet and salty mash of yams dotted with raisins that has been adapted from Danish and African influences. For the chef, the blended history of the USVI has inspired him to incorporate centuries-old recipes and methods. “I want to understand it—not change it,” he says.
David Benjamin, owner of Blue 11 in St. Thomas’s Yacht Haven Grande complex, is another chef influenced by the merging of cultures on the islands. His tasting-menu-only restaurant is for “people to get a feel of the flavors” of the Virgin Islands, he says. “You can’t do it in one dish.” Over a multi-hour meal, Benjamin shows off the various waves of influence that have created the modern culinary lexicon of this territory. After years of cooking European food at a nearby resort, he felt it was important to illustrate that traditional dishes are just as interesting. “People think it can’t be beautiful or it can’t be pretty, but that’s not true,” he says of the humble recipes that serve as his template. His take on the comforting soup served at Gladys’ Cafe combines callaloo purée elegantly topped with seared snapper and scallops for a streamlined presentation. His signature halibut on a bed of cassava—served with a passion fruit sauce—demonstrates an appreciation for ingredients that grow here too.
In Christiansted, on St. Croix, Anquanette Gaspard shows visitors the breadth of USVI cuisine as part of her Taste of Twin City Food Tours, which she started in 2016. “We have some of the best food in the Caribbean,” she says. “We’re really a melting pot of cultures and people.” Seven flags have flown over the island, making for even more cultural influences than in neighboring St. Thomas or St. John, says Gaspard. A recent influx of Puerto Rican and Trinidadian immigrants have also brought new flavors—proof, says Gaspard, that St. Croix continues to be shaped by those who arrive here. There’s Singh Fast Food, a Trinidadian restaurant serving West Indian favorites like salted cod (stewed with turmeric, potatoes, and Scotch bonnets) and rotis (filled with savory proteins like conch or braised goat). The island also hosts an annual coquito festival, celebrating the holiday drink from Puerto Rico. “Stewed chicken and coquito are part of our food now too,” Gaspard says.
The USVI’s embrace of new foodways keeps it in a continual state of evolution—such that on every visit, I find new influences wrapped in with the old traditions I’ve known since childhood. The vegetarian food of Rastafarians, known as Ital cuisine, is growing in popularity thanks to an influx of Jamaicans (and a rising health-consciousness among Virgin Islanders). At St. Croix’s Smoke STX, I feasted on barbecued ribs so good I felt transported to the American South.
Of course, the islands’ history will always remain embedded within that shifting culinary character, whether you find it in the classic kalaloo at Gladys’ or in Benjamin’s modern version of it. I thought about those distinct flavors that I identify with—and that make up so much of my identity—a few days later as I watched St. Thomas grow smaller and farther away from the window on my flight back to the U.S. mainland. It would be a while before I’d feel the comfort of those flavors again. The struggle and freedom behind them resonates deeply within me, but their ever-changing influences keep me in constant surprise with every return. What I taste on my next visit will surely be familiar—comforting, like home—but I have no doubt there will be something new to discover too.