In the Virgin Islands, fungi tells a story

Julius Jackson
Julius Jackson, a former Olympic boxer turned chef and educator, in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands, April 13, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
At Petite Pump Room, a waterfront restaurant in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas, lunchtime usually finds locals and visitors filling the tables and bar, taking in the island’s hills and watching seaplanes take off and land in the harbor from nearby St Croix.اضافة اعلان

Since 1970, the Petite Pump Room has been a meeting place, offering a menu of local favorites — stewed conch in butter sauce, fried local snapper with a Creole sauce of tomato and bell peppers — alongside typical fare like sandwiches and salads. But the restaurant’s fungi, a side dish made of hot cornmeal that’s easy to overlook, is cherished by those from the islands but remains unfamiliar to most visitors. “A lot of them will try it once you explain it to them,” said Judy Watson, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Michael Anthony Watson.

Fungi (pronounced foon-JEE), a cooked yellow cornmeal mixture dotted with tender okra and thinned with chunks of butter, is a staple on dinner tables and was once a fixture on restaurant menus across the Virgin Islands.

But it is hard to find at newer restaurants, leaving institutions like Petite Pump Room, De’ Coal Pot on the east side of the island and Gladys’ Cafe in Charlotte Amalie to keep the dish alive on their menus.

Most native Virgin Islanders fondly remember fungi as a part of their childhoods, and as a key element of fish and fungi, a common meal, said Michael Watson, 59. “We ate it once a week or so growing up, and I’ve always enjoyed it,” he said. “I used to beg my older sister to make it for me.”

But the recipe also represents an important piece of Virgin Islands history. Fungi’s roots extend back to the 18th century when, under colonial rule, food was rationed for enslaved Africans on the islands as part of a 1755 law that required slave owners to provide enslaved persons with corn flour or cassava, as well as salt pork.

In his 1992 book, “Slave Society in the Danish West Indies,” author and professor Neville A.T. Hall writes that this amount would have been 2 1/2 quarts of cassava or cornmeal per week, a small amount considering the hard labor required during harvest season. To fill in the gaps, enslaved Africans grew their own provisions on land hidden from slave owners. Okra, a key ingredient in West African cooking brought to the Caribbean by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was likely added to the cornmeal around this time, increasing the dish’s nutritional value, adding an earthy flavor and stretching it into a meal that could feed many.

Preserving this part of Virgin Islands history is important for Julius Jackson, the chef and manager at the cafe and bakery of My Brother’s Workshop, a nonprofit organization that teaches managerial skills and culinary arts in Charlotte Amalie. “When they make it, they usually say their grandparents and the adults in their life eat fungi,” Jackson said of his students.

The decline in the dish’s popularity isn’t unexpected, as it requires more preparation than other staples like fried plantains or rice and beans. The process of whipping, or “turning” it, is a time-consuming task that prevents lumps and aerates the mixture.

But the appeal of fungi is that it uses few ingredients to create a flavorful accompaniment to a stewed or fried protein.

In the cafe and in Jackson’s cookbook, “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen,” his recipe for fungi is simplified: Cook the okra until tender before whisking in a steady stream of cornmeal. The goal of his lessons at the cafe — and this simplification — is to encourage a new generation of cooks to make fungi at home.

He serves his fungi in a bowl of kallaloo, a hot soup made with spinach, pork, and seafood, similar to the Nigerian dish efo riro. In teaching younger cooks about recipes like fungi, he hopes to illustrate how many Caribbean dishes are linked directly to West Africa. “There’s so much history in our food that tells our story, and I can actually show them that,” Jackson said.

As more restaurants specializing in global cuisines arrive on the island, traditional dishes have become harder to come by. But that doesn’t mean they should disappear completely, said Digby Stridiron, a chef who grew up on St Croix. “If there’s a restaurant here that does traditional food, they should serve fungi,” he said. “Just like you see jerk in Jamaica or roti in Trinidad, because that’s what we eat here.”

Stridiron is in the process of opening a restaurant on St. Thomas and believes that one way to preserve fungi may be to modernize it. For his menu, he wants to source high-quality cornmeal from producers like Anson Mills as well as dehydrated okra pods to enhance the flavor as they are cooked with the cornmeal.

“The islands are a transitional place where people are coming together and leaving their mark through food,” he said. “It’s always evolving. As chefs, it’s our responsibility to keep dishes alive and innovate them, while getting to the root of the dish and not losing sight of the flavor and the concept.”

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