Expect a delightful twist on stateside traditions if you visit the US Virgin Islands for Thanksgiving. We watch football games, yes, but projected on hotel linens strung up between palm trees. Instead of wrestling over deep discounts at day-after sales, you’ll find many VI residents sailing in a regatta or sharing leftovers at a beach volleyball game. The gatherings themselves tend to the unconventional – beyond family dinners, you have your pick of resort buffets, large community potlucks, or exquisite gourmet meals served at five star restaurants.
The tastes of the Caribbean create the perfect palette to transform American fall favorites into something fresh, yet pre-dating landfall at Plymouth Rock. The bright notes of key lime compliment local seafood. The deep, earthy flavors of plantain and Caribbean pumpkin are an excellent alternative to green bean casseroles or candied yams. The surprise of Scotch bonnet pepper is eye-opening in a jerk seasoning or a tropical salsa. Add a splash of rum to any of these recipes and you won’t go wrong. Many of the dishes have an element of grilling or smoking because the Caribbean weather in November is ideal for outdoor cooking.
Below you’ll find 12 things islanders may eat during the holidays, some history behind them, and my transplant reinterpretation of these classics:
Grilled Spiny Lobster with Key Lime and Butter Sauce
Fresh caught lobster graces many Caribbean Thanksgiving tables, which may be more authentic than it sounds. In a letter to England in 1621, Plymouth Colony leader Edward Winslow describes a five day feast of fowl and venison that was celebrated by the Pilgrims with ninety Native Americans. He goes on to write that the bay is full of lobsters, eels and mussels, leading culinary historians to believe that the first Thanksgiving would have included not only duck, goose, venison and wild turkey, but also an array of seafoods.
Caribbean or Spiny Lobster (no claws) needs little more than a spritz of sea water and a bed of coals. Server with butter sauce and key lime halves.
Grilled Whole Snapper with Caribbean Green Seasoning
The delicate flavor of the abundant varieties of local snapper or grouper is paired with a truly distinctive Green Seasoning. Cross cut the flesh of the fish and marinade in a purée of cilantro, celery, garlic, green onions, fresh thyme, salt, and cubanelle peppers. Grill in a fish basket to keep the tender fish in one piece. Cook until the juices run clear and the meat is white to the bone. Do not over cook.
Caribbean Jerked Turkey with Mofongo Stuffing
Start with Puerto Rico’s soul food, mofongo. This stuffing is a fried-and-mashed fusion of green plantains, bacon fat and cracklings, garlic, and cubanelle pepper. Stuff the turkey with mofongo and dry rub in a Jerk spice blend. Roast as usual.
The collection of recipes in Ann Vanderhoof’s An Embarrassment of Mangos has influenced almost every potluck dish I make. The salsa featured in this non-fiction account of sailing (and eating) down the Caribbean chain can be made with any tropical fruit selection on hand. Generally, my version includes mango, avocado, pineapple, papaya, red bell pepper, red or green onion, key lime juice, fresh cilantro and diced scotch bonnet peppers.
Curry Roast Caribbean Pumpkin
Although yams and sweet potatoes are decidedly West Indian, pumpkins are even more so. Curry is also pervasive throughout Caribbean cooking, to the confusion of visitors, who think of curries as Indian or South East Asian. Cube and parboil a sweet variety of cooking pumpkin such as a calabaza, combine with sautéed onions, season with Caribbean curry and sea salt, toss with a splash of oil, and put the mixture in a baking dish. Cook for 30 minutes. Finish the dish by covering with coconut milk infused with bay leaf and finish baking for another 20 minutes or so.
Arroz con Gandules
Another Puerto Rican holiday favorite is rice with pigeon peas. Pigeon peas, which are more like lentils, are combined with rice, pork, and Puerto Rican-style sofrito sauce. My mother-in-law used to make this dish cooked with green olives and raisins on special occasions. The sweet and salty addition made the staple food a special treat.
No Caribbean holiday meal would be complete without Kallaloo. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, but I understand it is an acquired taste. Kallaloo is a nutrient rich leafy green that is often called Caribbean spinach. Indeed, the dish can be made with a variety of greens. The real thing is dasheen or taro leaves, but anything from Swiss chard to spinach can be used. In the Virgin Islands, it is most popular cooked with okra and seafood or pork in a stew. Kallaloo is served with fungi which is similar to polenta made with cornmeal and okra.
Key Lime Pie
Invented in Florida at the turn of the last century, the origin of Key Lime Pie is the source of speculation. There are three things about the pie that can’t be contested – its primary ingredients are key limes and sweetened/condensed milk; it was invented before refrigeration and was intended to be shelf safe; and that it’s a delicious dessert. Key limes are a tiny, thin skinned citrus more intense and juicier then the larger dark green Persian variety common in US supermarkets. Condensed milk is a factory processed food popularized by Gail Borden in 1853. The crust can be gram cracker or pastry; the topping, whipped cream or meringue, but without key lime and condensed milk, it’s not a Key Lime Pie.
Papaya Rum Cake
Rum Cake is another historical holiday food popular in the Caribbean. The traditional version is made with rum soaked dried fruit mixed into a dense doughy batter. The baked cake is soaked in even more rum and can be kept without refrigeration for years. The version that I like is made on special occasions by Beverly Melius of Pickles in Paradise on St. John and is more of a sponge cake folded with a papaya purée, baked, then soaked in fine rum and caramel sauce. Bev’s version never lasts long enough for me to find out if the rum acts as a preservative.
Banana Flambé with Ice Cream
I can’t end this section without the simple and sumptuous bananas flambe. It’s easy and quick. Sauté sliced bananas in butter, cinnamon and brown sugar. Douse with a high proof spiced rum and ignite. Pour the resulting banana caramel sauce over vanilla bean or rum raisin ice cream.
In the Caribbean, rum can be elevated to the sublime. Not incidentally added to Coca Cola or even fruity umbrella drinks by the well heeled; fine, aged, and casked versions of the liquor can be quaffed over ice or straight up like a fine Cognac or Scotch. A bottle of Appleton Estate 30 Year Aged Rum will run you about $600 retail. Some of the barrel aged rums from Cuba, much more ($1600). Rhum Agricole, made in the French West Indies from fresh sugar cane juice is an elegant French take. I drink it over ice with key lime juice and simple syrup. It’s fun and surprising to end a Caribbean meal with a tasting of these rare and wonderful spirits.
The guavaberry is a small reddish, orange, or purple fruit of the guavaberry tree. Guavaberries should not be confused with the pink fleshed Guava, the fruits are not related. Likewise, this wine should not be confused with a Chardonnay or Chianti. Guavaberry wine, in reality, is an infused rum. The recipes go back generations and are guarded secrets – special blends of ingredients include spices, vanilla, dried fruits, and sorrel. This holiday treat is pure Virgin Islands. It is not made anywhere else in the world other than the Leewards.
Even if you can’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the Caribbean this year, you can bring the islands to your table. We offer these inspirations for a Caribbean Thanksgiving Feast. Many resources to recreate these recipes or substitutions are online.
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About the Author
Catherine Turner spends her time sailing in the Caribbean, blogging from her MacBook Pro on the beach, and sipping coconut water from the nuts that plop into the sand next to her. Before tuning in and dropping out Catherine was a nightclub owner and a resort showgirl. A lifetime ago, she spent a decade chained to a desk as a computer programmer/data analyst. She loves to write, paint, snuggle, and to practice yoga. If she doesn’t answer her phone, she is probably in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Leave a message.