Fort Christian was fragrant with smells familiar to those “born here” and welcoming to others, many of those taking their first tastes of coal pot cooking Wednesday afternoon at the Virgin Islands Coal Pot Cook-Off.
Sponsored by the St. Thomas Historical Trust, seven chefs and their crews happily and busily worked to present their very best dishes to an ever-growing crowd.
The coal pot was once the only method of preparing a hot meal and, by the counsel of some folks, still the best.
Coal pots are a cooking method dating from before kitchen stoves became common. The pots are ceramic, iron or aluminum, all of which were used on Wednesday. And the pots are still a mainstay in outdoor cooking. They are used at the twice a month at the Bordeaux farmers fair.
The coal pot was the only way Olivia Maduro, who will be 97 in July, knew how to cook. "I was born here," Maduro said, "and coal pots were what we used." Maduro spoke from her seat just to the side of the fort steps where she had a privileged view of the action.
Armed against the sun with a pretty parasol and sun hat, Maduro said the coal pot was the only way of cooking when she was a child. "It’s good to see what they are doing today," she said with a gentle smile. "I’m enjoying this."
Ronald Lockhart, Historical Trust president, said the cook-off was the brainchild of Larise Joasil, who is now completing her sophomore year at the University of Virginia. A native of St. Thomas, Joasil conducted an experiment last summer, making johnny cakes in a coal pot at the trust’s museum on Roosevelt Park.
St. Thomas/Water Island Administrator Barbara Petersen hailed the occasion. "When I heard about the cook-off, I wanted to do everything I could to help. This is such a wonderful way to honor our old traditions."
The Petersen family, she said, embraces these traditions every Christmas morning at the Challenge of the Carols at Emancipation Garden, where they dispense everything from dumb bread and cheese to porridge.
Rabbi Stephen Moch and Pastor McDonald Colaire gave blessings for the food; Trust Vice President Bernice Turnbull extended a warm welcome; and then Trust Executive Director Pamela Montegut gave the call everyone had been waiting for: "Drum roll," she instructed Milo’s Kings before continuing, "Let the tasting begin."
There was no need to repeat the invitation. In fact, a good number of the growing crowd had already been sampling the culinary offerings.
Kallaloo was the most popular item, the dish contributed by Ilejah Crabbe and Gray Klinefelter from St. Croix, representing the V.I. Culinary team; Ezzy McCall of Tickles’s Dockside Pub; and Shirley Honore of Marriott’s Frenchman’s Reef.
Chef Ashley Allen of the Ralph O. Wheatley Skills Center had a bevy of his students cooking away to a steady line of customers for their curry-cilantro johnny cakes; while Jambie Martin of We Grow Food Inc. served up his famous pumpkin soup.
Lending a historical touch, the beloved band Milo’s Kings kept everybody hopping, especially the Mungo Niles Cultural Dancers led by Carlos Woods.
Woods even got a bunch of the diners to join in.
"Come on, work off a little of that food and dance with us," he urged.
It didn’t take too much encouragement before a group of folks holding hands followed Woods’ instructions: "OK, hold up your hands. Ladies swing the hips. Men circle round. Everyone to the center. Now back."
The feeling of the afternoon was warm and generous, with folks exchanging comments on the food and on the fun. "My goodness," said one of the dancing ladies, "I never thought I’d find myself dancing in front of the fort today!"
New York photographer Ray Llanos, born on St. Croix, had likely the widest smile of any of the dancers. "This is such a treat," he said, while still panting from the workout. "I love to come back to the islands."
Wheatley Skills Center student Alvin Domingo, who aspires to be a line-cook, perhaps said it best. "Food is necessary to life. When your belly is happy, you’re happy."
If Wednesday’s enthusiastic crowd was any indication, perhaps we’ll see more coal pot cooking events. Several folks said they would like to see the cook-off become an annual event.
The winners were determined by donations in each chef’s vote jar. The final tallies determined that Chef Ezzy McCall of Tickle’s Dockside Pub came in first place for kallaloo.
Second place went to Chef Ashley Allen and the Ralph O. Wheatley Skill Center students for their curry-cilantro johnny cakes.
Moressa Olive of Morie’s Cultural Café took third place for the red peas soup.
Event sponsors included Ace Hardware, Merchant’s Market, the V.I. Departments of Tourism, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the St. Thomas/Water Island administrator, the Virgin Islands Fire Services and many other organizations, and a grant from the V.I. Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.