Over the decades, we have lost so much of our tradition and culture of the Virgin Islands. As Virgin Islanders, we tend to adopt someone else’s culture and disregard our own. Historically speaking, this time of the year the talk on estates during the Danish and early American rule of these islands was of kallaloo and the Christmas festival. As the year drew to a close, especially on the island of St. Croix, the enslaved population of the Danish West Indies was preparing for the Christmas festival and the cooking of kallaloo.
Hans West, a Danish educator and amateur naturalist, taught the enslaved children on St. Croix from 1788-1791. During his stay on St. Croix, he got to know the Crucian plantocracy very well. In his book titled “Bidray til Beskrivelse over Ste. Croix med en Kort Udsigt over. Thomas, St. Jean, Tortola, Spanishtown og Crabeniland,” he defends the institution of slavery as civilized in the Danish West Indies and not brutal by what anti-slavery writers wrote about the islands.
Although it was obvious that West was tainted by his pro-slavery position, he nonetheless provides information about slave life and their working conditions in the Danish West Indies. Information that West provided in his book about slaves included the food they ate. West claimed that slaves liked to eat meat, fish and white bread just like the Europeans. He went on to say the slaves’ greatest delicacies were meals prepared with small pieces of pork or beef and many vegetables. This meal was heavily seasoned with Spanish or red pepper, West wrote.
West mentioned it was customary in the Danish West Indies for slaveholders to, at least twice weekly, give each slave a measure of 10 to 12 quarts of cornmeal along with rye or wheat flour, which came from North America. The slaves would bake bread daily or make the flour into dumplings for their kallaloo or pepper pot. Slaves also received from their owners’ slated provision of beef and pork. This giving out of food stuff to slaves was called “Negroes allowance.”
In addition, each slave on the plantations had his own designated ground or plot of land where he planted crops such as sweet potatoes, corns, yams, batatas, and other produce for his consumption. However, one of the main native dishes that stood out was the kallaloo. “In this manner, the field workers cook their pepper pot or kallaloo, each one at his house, and enjoy the cool evening which is their actual eating time permitted by circumstances,” West wrote.
On the island of St. Croix particularly, kallaloo and crabs were interchangeable. The dish of kallaloo became a major tradition for slaves, which coincided with the harvesting of kallaloo crabs during the fall and winter season. The kallaloo crab was once common and widespread throughout the Virgin Islands. As our culture changed along with the destruction of the environment, many kallaloo crab habitats were destroyed. This also led to over-harvesting of the crabs, especially by some immigrants that made the Virgin Islands their home.
The harvesting of crabs is no longer by the traditional method of a small home-made box with a hole to the bottom. Traditionally, the small box was placed over the crab hole. At times, crab bush, a medicinal plant leaf, was placed into the box to attract the crab because of the strong scent of the bush as the crab crawled up into the box. Today, PBC pipes are used to catch crabs not by native people, but by immigrants especially from the Dominican Republic. In the old days, kallaloo crabs were sold for a few cents. Today, it costs two legs and one arm to purchase kallaloo crabs from a roadside stand. In other words, it is more expensive today to buy crabs than 100 years ago.
Kallaloo is African in origin. According to the late George A. Seaman, a Crucian naturalist, “kallaloo is generally a thick, whimsically seasoned melange of weeds, fish, salted beef or pigtails and conch and crab.” Seaman continued to describe the Crucian kallaloo dish by saying, “This unsavoury-looking mess is often so hot with red pepper that the stranger fears to touch it. On the other hand, once tasted – if not too peppery – this same newcomer will declare the dish an epicurean’s delight – that is if he hasn’t dug down and brought up the hairy legs of a land crab to his astonished vision!”
Throughout the Caribbean, kallaloo with different spellings, or at times referred to as pepper pot, is a cultural dish of Caribbean people. However, the Crucian kallaloo is unique which extended from the ingredients and the preparation of the soup. This tradition all started from the enslaved populations of the Danish West Indies. Kallaloo was so embedded in the people of the Virgin Islands, especially sugarcane workers on St. Croix, that when the fields flourish after the May and June rains, the weed-woman will sing and harvest the bush.
There is no other food under the heavens that is healthier than kallaloo. Kallaloo is an alkaline food, especially vegetarian kallaloo. Slaves and former slaves of the Danish and the early American period of these islands lived long lives because of the natural and organic foods they ate. Believe me; kallaloo plays a role in longevity. Traditionally, kallaloo was such a cultural part of us that pregnant women in the old days ate kallaloo for a healthy and smooth delivery of their child.
At Old Year’s Night, kallaloo was eaten into the New Year. According to tradition, kallaloo gives you good luck for the New Year. Another Virgin Islands tradition: eating kallaloo on Old Year’s Night purged you out for the New Year. This purge allows you to start the New Year afresh. If we want to start the New Year fresh, let us make kallaloo our national dish for 2022.
I had my bowl of kallaloo, what about you? Happy New Year!
Olasee Davis is an Extension Professor/Extension Specialist in Natural Resources at the University of the Virgin Islands who writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.