I love islands. I love the sensation of being surrounded by water from every viewpoint, the way the sun spreads an aura of happiness over everything, and the slow, easy pace that the island lifestyle inspires. I’ve never seen an island that I didn’t like, but one that I really adore is St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Croix is a favorite of mine not just because of the beauty of the beaches, or the striking butter-yellow buildings left behind by the Danish colonizers, or the distinctive lilt of the Crucian dialect. What captivates me about St. Croix is that it overflows with preserved Caribbean traditions: music, dance, handicrafts, and of course, food. In fact, as we enter the manic menu preparations for the holiday season, I’m reminded that St. Croix is where I tasted the most unexpected holiday side dish I’ve ever eaten.
To grasp St. Croix’s diverse culture, it’s important to know its history. All over the island’s twin cities of Christiansted and Frederiksted, you’ll see a cluster of seven flags flying over the 18th-century buildings. That’s because St. Croix has been colonized throughout history by seven different countries: Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, the Knights of Malta, Denmark, and the United States. All of these influences show up in different ways, from the French-imported quadrille folk dance, to the Spanish phrases that pop up in local conversations, to the popularity of Red Grout, a Danish tapioca made with guava and spices.
The other side of St. Croix’s history is the legacy of the Three Queens. After the abolishment of slavery on the island in 1859, conditions didn’t change very much for the workers on sugar plantations. So in 1878, in protest of the harsh working conditions, three women led an insurrection that burned down half of Frederiksted. The three women became known as the Three Queens—Queen Mary, Queen Agnes, and Queen Mathilda—and the uprising is called Fireburn. St. Croix’s main highway is named in Queen Mary’s honor, and the bronze Three Queens Fountain stands on a hill in St. Thomas depicting the women in action with a torch, sugarcane knife, and lantern.
The spirit and pride in this history is a throughline in St. Croix’s culture. Moko jumbies, masked stilt walkers that dance at every celebration, represent a spiritual protector whose tradition can be traced back thousands of years to West Africa. Meanwhile, the blowing of the queen conch shell, symbolizing a call to freedom, can still be heard by fisherman arriving with their catch, as well as at the Estate Whim sugar plantation museum.
The last time I was in St. Croix, in May, my ears were perked for a fisherman’s call. I was longing for a rendition of St. Croix’s unofficial dish of fish and fungi, a tasty meal of fried fish and okra-studded cornmeal pudding that reflects both Danish salt herring and African fish stews. But as I was deciding which traditional Crucian dishes to order at Cast Iron Pot restaurant, I saw St. Croix potato stuffing listed on the menu. I was puzzled.
“Stuffing? Like turkey stuffing at Thanksgiving?” I asked Sharon, the St. Croix expert.
“No, this is our local potato stuffing with raisins,” she explained. Potatoes with raisins? Now I was really confused. Sharon added that it was a beloved feature at holiday and Sunday dinners and that some people like to add olives, and that’s when I knew that I had to try this confounding dish.
It arrived in a soft, orangey mound, nestled next to a beautifully fried whole snapper. The raisins poked out as I scooped up a bite, and it melted in my mouth like whipped cream. It tasted slightly sweet, like sweet potato casserole with a spicy tingle.
I learned that although every family has their own recipe and some versions are spicier, white sweet potatoes are generally the foundation of this stuffing, and the addition of tomato paste supplies the orange color. A mix of savory, sweet, and spicy, with varied influences, St. Croix potato stuffing is a perfect encapsulation of Crucian culture.
I asked St. Croix’s acclaimed chef and Caribbean culinary ambassador Digby Stridiron about what St. Croix’s potato stuffing represents to him personally.
“For me, it’s the quintessential dish that lets me know that I’m home,” he explained. “I’ve never had potato stuffing outside of the USVI. It has loads of flavor and can still be healthy.”
St. Croix potato stuffing is a popular staple during the island’s Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Here’s Chef Digby’s recipe.
Crucian Potato Stuffing
- 4 medium sweet potatoes
- 2 medium yams (or 1 large)
- 1/4 cup butter, cubed and chilled
- 1/2 white onion, sliced
- 1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
- 1/2 green bell pepper, sliced
- 1 habanero pepper
- 4 oz. diced tomatoes
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 Tbsp. thyme
- 4-5 leaves culantro, minced (Note: if you can’t find culantro, substitute fresh cilantro)
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 2 Tbsp. cumin
- 2 tsp. allspice
- 1 tsp. coriander
- 1 Tbsp. paprika
- 2 eggs
- 2 Tbsp. neutral cooking oil (preferably achiote oil)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Start by boiling or steaming the potatoes. While they’re cooking, toast the allspice and coriander in a separate pan. Remove from heat and grind.
In a medium saucepan, add oil and cumin and allow the oil to temper. Add culantro (or cilantro), onion, peppers, thyme, and whole garlic cloves. Sauté 4-5 minutes.
Once vegetables have softened, add the diced tomatoes, paprika, allspice, and coriander and continue to sauté into a slow braise. Braise until oil separates and floats to the top.
Remove potatoes from the heat. While they’re still hot, add butter and begin to mash the potatoes into a purée.
Once the oil separates from the sauce add to a blender and purée until it becomes a silky consistency. Add sauce back to the heat and add the raisins.
Once the raisins have softened you will then start tempering the eggs: Whip the eggs until they become frothy and start to bubble, about 90 seconds. Slowly add the heated sauce to the eggs a tablespoon at a time until the mixture thickens and the egg mixture is warm to the touch. Combine both mixtures and remove from any heat. Combine this mixture with the potatoes until fully blended.
Place potato mixture into a well-greased casserole dish and bake for 35-40 minutes or until golden brown and delicious. Serve warm.
My favorite accompaniments are oxtails, stew chicken, and even conch salad.