Early rains didn’t slow down the Mango Melee and Tropical Fruit Festival at the St. George Village Botanical Garden Sunday. Crowds flocked to the grounds to celebrate St. Croix’s signature fruit, and they didn’t have to wait long to get their first taste.
Just inside the gates, David Hamada, the director of the botanical garden, was handing out samples of several mango varieties in tiny plastic cups. After slurping down a few, one woman asked him, “Do you get paid for this? Because I’ll switch my job to this!”
Hamada said that the mango season this year was tough for many farmers and overall it was harder for the festival to round up the dozens of varieties on display, but in the end it all came together.
He said that mangos were a terrific symbol of the island’s agricultural history and future farming potential. He added that today was not just a celebration of the fruit itself, but also of the “hard work and the creativity of the people who are growing them and using them.”
On the porch of the Great Hall, attendees got a chance to taste some of that mango creativity. The “Mango Dis, Mango Dat” cooking competition challenged local chefs to cook up their best mango salsas, sweets, drinks, and anything else they could come up with.
Joanna White, one of the event’s organizers, said the judges were looking for taste, presentation, use of mango, and creativity. This last criteria, she said, was often the difference maker.
“One year we saw like five cheesecakes,” she said with a touch of disappointment, adding that the key to victory was to break the mold and do something unexpected.
“You have to stand out above the rest,” she said.
This year’s entrants didn’t disappoint, with a number of head-scratching dishes you’d never think were good unless you tasted them. Pickled vanilla mango with brie anyone?
In the beverage category, Cleantha Samuel won with her mango seamoss. Romano Thomas won the “other” category with a mango pork tenderloin. Viola Brastron took home double honors, winning both the salsa and sweets categories with her mango pepper salsa and mango cream tart, both of which were quickly devoured by the crowd after the competition.
The highlight of the day, of course, was the mango eating competition. Event organizers began setting up the tables an hour early, and people immediately started picking out their spots on the lawn of the Great Hall. One woman in the crowd was overheard asking, “Are those trash cans for throwing away the mangos or for throwing up?”
Other people must have been thinking the same thing as well, because up until 10 minutes before the competition began, they did not have enough adults signed up to compete. Kofi Boateng, who was announcing the event, challenged those nearby to throw their hat in the ring. Eventually an anonymous donor doubled the prize money with an extra $100 bill, and that was enough to draw in the last few competitors.
The children’s group went first, with ten kids trying to plow through five large mangos in the shortest amount of time. Faith Boirard was the only girl in the competition, but she didn’t let that faze her. When the competition began she tore into the pile of fruit in front of her, eating through her mangos like a lathe through wood.
In the end, none of the kids downed all five of their mangos, but the judges ruled that Boirard had gotten to her fifth first and that she should take home the $50 in prize money.
In the adult division, competitors were expected to eat twice as many mangos and to do it with only one hand. Amongst the contestants was Hector Gordon, who was celebrating his 54th birthday. He said his grandson’s gift to him was to compete in the kid’s bracket and he came up one mango short of victory.
“But he did very good,” he said. “So I wanted to show him that we going to take home this prize and win the bragging rights.”
Gordon was right to be optimistic. He left the rest of the competitors in the dust, finishing all 10 mangos in well under 10 minutes.
“This is something I do on a regular basis,” Gordon said afterward. “This isn’t something I just tried to do; this is from experience.”
When asked what his secret to victory was, he said it was his technique.
“I didn’t even have to peel the mango,” he said. “I just get in there like a mongoose eats an egg.”
After the event, the crowd began to break up and everyone headed home, many with full bellies and sticky fingers.
Sandi Savage, president of the botanical garden, said the day had been a success and that she thought the turnout was especially good this year. She speculated that after all the bad news the island has received over the last few months, maybe people needed something like this to unwind.
“This is a fun day,” she said. “It really has been one.”