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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Thanksgiving in Paradise

Thanksgiving in Paradise

This is a short excerpt that’s destined for my book, which will be called “Out of My Kitchen.”  It’s mostly a memoir, and it covers the bulk of the kitchens of my life (mine, family, friends’ kitchens, and then some) and related experiences that have come out of them. This piece is about the year I celebrated Thanksgiving with a group of friends while I was living and working (if it could be called that) in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Very fun time, and a memorable holiday, as you might imagine. This is a raw, unedited piece, so the version that you’ll see in the book will undoubtedly undergo some additions and deletions (mostly the latter, from what I’ve heard from fellow authors). But this will hopefully convey the flavor of celebrating a holiday in the Caribbean. 


It was while I was living at the house in the Sunset District in San Francisco during one of our weekend dinners parties that an old friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in years approached me about a job opportunity in St. Thomas. Yes, that St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean. It didn’t take much convincing for me to give my two weeks’ notice as Head Clerk at Byrne’s Fine Foods on Polk Street in the City, pack up, and head to the Caribbean. St. Thomas and the whole Caribbean area was a phenomenal experience. I worked for a company that was based out of Orlando, Florida called RPM, Resort Pool Management. The gig was that we took care of three different resorts’ pools, and in return we got to have a concession on the beach where we sold suntan products (Panama Jack, pictured above), diving, fishing, and sailing tours, and rented snorkeling equipment and sailboats for use in the harbor in front of us. I worked at Pineapple Beach, and my day would start by putting on a bathing suit and T-shirt, going to work and taking off the T-shirt, cleaning and managing the chemical levels in a couple pools, and either working on the beach or sailing to nearby St. John and back. I returned to San Francisco three days before Christmas with the best tan I’ve ever had. Amazing what six months on a Caribbean beach will do for you in that regard!


But the time I lived in St. Thomas was amazing. Not always easy, and we had some real clowns around us from Tennessee and South Carolina, but we certainly had some good times. I arrived first, and my sister Colleen and friend John T arrived about a month later. As it was still technically the off season for tourists when I first got there, I was told to do two things over the course of my first two weeks … get a tan (we were after all selling suntan products) and explore the island and surrounding islands. St. Thomas is small, measuring a whopping 4 by 13 miles, or 32 square miles of tropical splendor. Like many of the Caribbean islands, it’s flat near the ocean, but rises quickly. The Danish had control of the island until 1917, when America bought it as a precautionary measure against any potential German invasion of the area. The Danish divided the island into Estates, and I lived in Estate Wintberg, which sat high on one of the hilly areas in the middle of the island. We had a 360-degree view from the several decks of the small house, and could see Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Virgin Gorda, Tortola, and nearby St. John, as well as several smaller islands and “cays.” The several of us who lived in the house were poor at the time, so we didn’t have much … but we had that view, and it always seemed that we had plenty of Mt. Gay rum in the house. The best rums cost all of two bucks a fifth in Charlotte Amalie, which is the only real city on the island. That same rum cost about $15.00 in the U.S. at the time, meaning the government(s) were tacking on about thirteen dollars a bottle in taxes by the time it hit your local liquor store. And to be fair, Mt. Gay cost sixty-seven cents a bottle in Barbados, where it was produced. So, the price was tripled by the time it made it to Charlotte Amalie … but only to two dollars. 


Our days were spent at one of the three resorts we managed; Pineapple Beach (where I worked), Lime Tree, and Sapphire. Sapphire was the biggest and arguably the fanciest, Lime Tree was small and somewhat hidden away, and Pineapple was somewhere in the middle. Point Pleasant was on the bluff to the right, and Coki Beach (and the best snorkeling on the island) was just to our south. 


I made quick friends with Jay and Carla, who owned a beautiful 36’ ketch called The Feather, which was moored in the small bay in front of Pineapple Beach resort. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to “work” on The Feather on my days off and managed to make the day trip to St. John and back about a dozen times. We’d take six couples, plus Jay and his girlfriend Carla, and me, and set sail around 10AM for beautiful Honeymoon Bay, which was a leisurely four-mile jaunt across the Pillsbury Sound. We’d commonly zigzag around some of the smaller islands and cays to make it a little more scenic. 


Once we were out of the Pineapple Beach harbor, it was an open bar for the rest of the day. Tropical rum concoctions, blender drinks, beer, wine, and soft drinks were only a shout away. We always tried to drop anchor in Honeymoon Bay, because it was a big, open area with some amazing snorkeling, but was rarely “crowded.” More than four boats equaled crowded, and we’d sometimes make the decision to go around the island to another spot, or on a couple occasions all the way around to Virgin Gorda, where the guests got to experience The Baths. 


Lunch was prepared on the boat, while Jay and I guided the guests to the best snorkeling spots. We would inevitably be asked if there were sharks in the water, and our stock answer was that “yes, there are 55 varieties of sharks in the Caribbean, but attacks are exceedingly rare.”  I never saw a shark while living there (and we were in the water every day), but you could count on seeing a variety or rays and barracuda, as well as the usual array of colorful tropical fish. Carla would put together amazing meals using fresh local ingredients, and always received a round of applause and lots of “oooh’s and aaah’s.” One of her favorites was stuffed christophines, which we call chayote in the U.S. She used a very simple technique, which I use to this day for a variety of types of stuffed squash. Simply cut them in half, dig out the center, chop it up and mix with some breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a spice or two (try herbs de Provence or just a pinch of thyme). Bake for about 30 minutes at 350, and voila. 


After lunch, the guests could do some more snorkeling, or just be lazy and hang around the deck of the Feather for another hour or so, after which, we’d zigzag back across the four mile stretch of Caribbean, returning to Pineapple Beach by mid-afternoon. 



The Thanksgiving celebration in St. Thomas was quite an experience; somewhat surrealistic, verging on magical. Our company got together with another one that performed the same function as ours, and we jointly prepared a huge feast for about twenty, all of whom were relatively new to St. Thomas and a long way from home and family. The local grocery store in Charlotte Amalie is far from comprehensive compared to mainland standards, but we managed to come up with virtually all the customary food items for a great Thanksgiving dinner. A huge turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the “bean casserole thing,” mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pies were prepared for the hungry group. Everyone helped cook, and of course the whole affair took place in or near the large kitchen at our friends’ big rental house. The view from the decks was of Charlotte Amalie, the St. Thomas harbor, and Submarine Island, and included a great view of the cruise ships that were docked. There were usually five or six ships in the harbor, and on this day, there were at least that many, meaning many thousands of travelers were going to experience Thanksgiving in paradise just as we were. This was truly a memorable holiday, far away from my home in California.

I returned from St. Thomas a couple days before Christmas with the afore-mentioned incredible suntan and about twenty dollars to my name. The only answer was to spend a few weeks with my parents, who were now living in a little townhouse in Parkmerced. Something about living here felt like I’d come full circle, but not necessarily in an ideal or predictable way. But here I was.


After a brief stay in the room downstairs where I lived before going to St. Thomas, my life and subsequent professions were about to change in a huge way. Next stop … Chico.


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