July 3, 2006 – Arthur Petersen was surrounded on all sides. Everyone wanted to get a sample of his famous fried fish and fungi. All he could see was empty plates waiting to be filled with the native dish, and he was filling them as fast as he could.
It was hard to tell which was hotter – the midday sun blazing over head or the glowing embers of the ground-level coal pot.
But when good food is around, some things don't seem as important as others. The event was the fungi turning and fry fish sauce contest, and the crowd was making sure they got a taste to judge for themselves whose was best.
Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen was working on a plate of fried fish and fungi. "It's good man," was about all she could say between bites.
Bert Petersen, a doctor with Schneider Regional Medical Center, said he was the "official coal pot manager." "It's like a science," Petersen said. "You have to mange the coal pot to make sure the coals are burning evenly."
Christensen added a bit of sage advice. "Living in a hurricane prone area, if you have your coal pot you would survive."
Petersen said he learned the art of tending a coal pot from his mother when he was a little boy. "Cooking on a coal pot is a family affair," Petersen said, adding that with just one cooking device several people had to prepare different dishes and get them ready to put on the fire. "Today is all about passing on the culture," he said.
And it really was a family affair as under another bungalow on the Frederiksted waterfront, St. Thomas radio personality Barbara Petersen held on tight to a plate of fried fish and fungi. Petersen said they were all related – Bert, Arthur, Anna and herself.
"It's all about the culture," Barbara said, wiping the corner of her mouth with a napkin. "It's recognizing who we are." Barbara said a large part of Virgin Islands culture is centered on the foods we cook.
"The secret is in the arm," said Anna Petersen, the fungi turner of the family.
"She has a strong arm," Arthur said as he gave Anna's arm a squeeze. Anna said native cooking traditions were passed down to her from her grandmother and mother. Her father had a hand in it too, she said.
"My father told me how to 'work a fungi.'" She is also passing down the tradition to her son, a chef in the Navy. She is adamant that culture of food needs to be preserved.
"We are losing our traditions," she said. "Everyone wants things ready-made, and that is sad."
The fungi turning and fry fish sauce contest was organized by the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Committee, headed by Mary Moorehead. The event was held under the seldom used vendors' booths on the north side of the Ann E. Abramson pier behind Buddhoe Park.
Moorehead said although they did not get the number of contestants they hoped for – there was only the Petersen family – "the crowd was pleased." Moorehead also stressed the importance of keeping the culture alive.
"It's important that we who come after understand the enormous risk our ancestors took standing up for something they believed in," Moorhead said. "We all need to stand up and demand better conditions."
Tourism Commissioner Pamela C. Richards had nothing but praise for the Emancipation Day events and the organizers.
"Under the direction of the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Committee, the emancipation activities have grown tenfold," Richards said, adding that the events have been "culturally sensitive and fun."
Richards said she believes that Emancipation Day is the most important holiday for Virgin Islanders and that she has been to almost every event. Richards commended Moorehead in her role as committee chairwoman for having been able to "engage the community in discussions of our heritage from the arts to culinary to music to intellectual property."
Emancipation Day events wrap up on Tuesday with cultural dancers in the Customs Square and a grand fireworks display at 5 p.m.
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