Along the waterfront town square in Cruz Bay, the colorful village where the ferry from St. Thomas comes in every hour on the hour to St. John, the smallest and quietest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the locals set up umbrella-covered tables in the morning to hawk their foil-covered dishes of fried-meat turnovers called pates, mutton and goat stews, smoked fish, pralines and cakes.
Brown chickens wander in the hibiscus hedges and newcomers off the ferry pile into the island taxis -- pickup trucks equipped with upholstered benches and colorful striped awning tops. Off they go. Three miles away, up and over the hairy hairpin curves of the north shore road, it's lunchtime at Caneel Bay Plantation.
There a chef stands over a blazing grill in the tropical splendor of the Turtle Bay dining room, an open-air lanai high above the bay with a dazzling view of the yacht-filled harbor below. Marble-like slabs of pale swordfish are marinating in sesame oil and soy sauce, ready to be plopped on the grill when a hungry guest wanders in from the beach.
In 1954 Laurence Rockefeller took one look at St. John, an island smaller than Manhattan with only 2,400 inhabitants, and promptly bought half of it. "Paradise," he said, when he saw Caneel Bay, and decided to keep it that way. He bought up more than 5,000 acres, donating it to the National Park Service, and retained 170 acres to build an understated-but-elegant resort at Caneel Bay. Now more than two-thirds of the island is under park protection.
Daytrippers can lunch at the Sugar Mill, one of the three Caneel Bay dining areas, a beautiful open-air terrace where prices for entrees begin at $10. Sometimes they can get reservations for dinner in the main dining terrace, but not always.
However, it is more likely that daytrippers from St. Thomas and visitors to the park will dine at park establishments or sample the local version of West Indian cuisine.
Leaving Caneel Bay Plantation and moving along on the shoreline road, which overlooks some of the most famous coral reef beaches in the world, the rental jeeps and is land taxis plunge pell-mell around the curves and 35 mph feels like 70 (it's think left, drive left).
You can't resist stopping at The Kite, a little open-air shack clinging to a cliff above the water where Victor Hall, local musician, feeds and entertains the young and adventurous and rents camping space on Peter Bay. Potatoes are peeled for french fries while you watch. And the popular morning drink is Baileys Irish Cream and Kahlua.
Around a couple more bends in the road is Cinnamon Bay, managed by Caneel Bay and owned by the National Park Service. Its commissary stocks basics and ice for the campers who are cooking, but if these campers are too tired from snorkeling to fiddle with the primus stove, they have the choice of going to the beautiful open-air dining pavilion curving around a towering West Indian locust tree. There is a small, but surprisingly adequate cafeteria offering barbecue cookouts three nights a week, and other nights there are such offerings as grouper with hollandaise or red snapper with creole sauce.
Another mile down the beach road is Big Maho, an oceanfront beach park and pavilion, scene of some of the more authentic "Fish Frys." There the steel drums throb throughout the day on certain weekends and locals and tourists dance to the beat. Native cooks keep the frying pans going over acacia wood charcoal, turning out the fried-bread johnnycakes, corn on the cob, fried "fish heads and tails," more pa te's of meat, chicken or fish. There are covered dishes of sweet potato stuffing and cauldrons of callaloo, a spicy seafood gumbo and a Caribbean tradition.
At the far end of the pavilion, away from the crowd, the Rastafarians are quietly having their own cookout. Vegetarians, they are infamous for their dramatic dreadlock uncombed spiky hairdos. The true Rastafarians are a Bible-reading, marijuana-smoking cult that has spread from Jamaica to the Virgins.
Cold and taciturn to a curious stranger with a camera, they are making their specialty -- ital, a vegetarian stew of Ethiopian origin traditionally cooked in a clay pot over a wood fire. A low stone wall is the work table. Fresh vegetables, herbs and spices are heaped along the wall waiting to be peeled or chopped. Cracked coconuts wait to be grated and squeezed for coconut milk, which has to be added after the vegetables are tender. Into a boiling broth of herbs and leaves go the vegetables -- onions, lentils, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, dill, hot pepper and raw brown sugar.
"It's good for you, mon," explains one, "Make you live a hundred years."
While the pot simmers, burning branches are plucked from the fire to light marijuana joints wrapped in dried cane leaves. More mangrove branches are broken to feed the fire by the simple method of laying a branch across two stones and flinging a heavy stone from high over the head, cracking the branches.
Back at the Cinnamon Bay and Maho Bay campgrounds, the piles of coconut husks begin to pile up outside the cottages and tents as the campers learn they can crudely open the coconuts with the same rock-heaving method and enjoy coconut chunks with the evening rum and tonic. If you're diligent, you can find your own lime tree.
At restaurants serving native food, you are likely to find an island favorite, okra fungi, a stirred-cornmeal and chopped-okra dish served with boiled fish. Other favorites you might not find at the Fish Frys are soursop puddings, bullfoot soup and maubi, a drink made from maubi tree bark boiled with orange peel and spices.
One of the interesting people on St. John is Lucy Smith, a tour-van driver by day who decorates her van with fresh flowers, jokes with her passengers that it is almost time to put on snow tires, and in the evening serves native West Indian food on her porch by reservation only.
Here are some recipes from island chefs: MONGOOSE RESTAURANT CHICKEN WITH COCONUT CURRY SAUCE (8 servings)
The beautifully designed Mongoose complex in Cruz Bay with its rustic and polished woods, sugar plantation-style masonry and open-air tree house construction, provides a collection of good boutiques and also what is becoming a favorite St. John restaurant. Chef Henry Muus brings the island flavors to a popular menu selection. This is an adaptation of his recipe.
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 apple, finely chopped (optional)
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 cup crushed unsweetened pineapple
1 cup flaked coconut
2 cups strong chicken stock
1/4 cup whipping cream
8 chicken breast halves, skinned and boned
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Pineapple wedges for garnish
In a saucepan heat 1/4 cup butter with curry powder, stir and cook 2 or 3 minutes. Add apple, cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika; stir and add crushed pineapple and coconut; keep stirring for 2 or 3 minutes. Add chicken broth; simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Add cream and simmer until thickened.
While sauce is cooking, saute' chicken breasts in remaining butter and oil in a saute' pan until chicken breasts are golden brown and just done, about 20 minutes.
To serve, place a spoonful of sauce on a chicken breast. Garnish with a wedge of pineapple. CANEEL BAY CONCH FRITTERS WITH PAPAYA VINEGAR (Makes 30 fritters)
Executive chef Roger-Helmut Wohlgemut makes a light and airy conch fritter that bears no resemblance to the heavy, greasy balls served at the conch fritter stand in Cruz Bay, a traditional hangout for locals and daring tourists experimenting with their first conch fritter.
Instead of a baking powder dough, Wohlgemut uses a pa te a choux, a dough usually associated with cream puff shells. He thins the soft golden papaya "vinegar" with fish stock, but I preferred the fluffy, thicker texture.
If you don't want to deal with conchs, chopped clams are a good substitute. Conch fritters may also be served with horseradish or a tomato cocktail sauce.
6 conch, about 1 3/4 pounds, cleaned and blanched 5 minutes in boiling water (1 1/2 cups ground conch or 1 cup chopped clams)*
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon red pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons vinegar
Salt and pepper
1 3/4 cups pa te a choux (recipe follows)
Oil for deep frying
Parsley for garnish
Papaya vinegar for serving (recipe follows)
In a food processor, using the steel blade, grind conch finely. Mix with onion, peppers, vinegar and seasonings to taste.
Add pa te a choux and mix well. Form into loose walnut-sized balls. Deep-fry balls at 350 degrees until golden brown; drain on paper towels. Serve on individual plates napped with papaya vinegar.
*Conch are sold at the Maine Avenue fish markets. Blanch in boiling water 5 minutes before cleaning. To clean: Cut the stomach out of the midsection and slice away the hard "foot" and dark tailpieces. Peel away tough skin. Chop before placing in food processor. PAPAYA VINEGAR (Makes 1 1/4 cups)
This is a real find as a sauce that will lend itself to other recipes. Since papaya has such a delicate flavor, the choice of vinegar is important. Use any mild favorite.
1 papaya, either green or partially ripe, cut into small pieces
12-ounce can papaya nectar
2 tablespoons vinegar (rice wine or other mild flavor)
Salt and white pepper
1/4 cup fish stock (optional)
In a saucepan simmer papaya with nectar 15 or 20 minutes until fruit is soft and transparent. Cool a few minutes. Add vinegar, salt, pepper and process in a blender until sauce is smooth and fluffy. Thin with fish stock if desired. PATE A CHOUX (Makes about 2 cups batter)
1 cup water
1/3 cup butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted before measuring
4 eggs, room temperature (important)
In a heavy pan bring water and butter to a boil. Add salt and flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook and stir until mixture forms a ball and leaves the sides of the pan clean. Do not overcook or dough will not puff. Remove pan from heat and let stand for 2 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating vigorously after each until well incorporated and dough looks slippery. ISLAND GROUPER STEW IN CHILI-LIME SAUCE (6 servings)
A typical way of doing fish in the Caribbean is to boil it. Often it is marinated in lime juice and stock before cooking the fish in a small amount of boiling water, often with tomatoes. This is a handy recipe for the charter boats because it uses pantry shelf ingredients and works with whatever the catch may be.
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 cups fish or chicken stock or water
28-ounce can whole tomatoes, juice included
4-ounce can chopped green chilies
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1 large onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
Freshly ground pepper
2 pounds grouper chunks (or other firm fish such as sea bass)
Fresh parsley for garnish
In a deep heavy skillet, heat olive oil and cook celery and onion until soft but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add stock or water, tomatoes and liquid, chilies, lime juice, parsley, sliced onion, garlic, wine, basil and pepper. Simmer 30 minutes. Add fish chunks and simmer just until barely cooked, about 10 minutes. Serve in a large shallow bowl garnished with fresh chopped parsley. MANGO DAIQUIRIS (4 servings)
Mango season begins in the Caribbean in May. That's the time to switch from lime and banana daiquiris and enjoy an island favorite. Remember, mangoes should be chilled to avoid a turpentine taint to the flavor.
Fresh peaches always are a good substitute for mangoes, even in mango chutney recipes.
2 cups ice, crushed
1 cup mango pulp (or fresh peach slices), chopped finely before blending
1/2 cup light rum
1/3 cup lime juice
2 or 3 tablespoons sugar
Lime slices for garnish
Place all ingredients except lime slices in a blender. Cover and blend 10 seconds at high speed. Serve in cold stemmed glasses. Garnish with lime slices.