In the Virgin Islands, a picnic for us means a fish fry on the beach! This takes days of planning in advance, leading down to the day of with building excitement for everyone in the family, but especially the children. Between fish fry’s and carnival, my childhood memories surrounded family and food.
We’d arrive on the sandy beach as early as possible because from the time we were all “lil youts”, there’s nothing more fun than going to the beach to spend time with all your cousins and family.
Also, from a practical standpoint, once the sun starts to sink, the mosquitoes come out in droves so we plan our day early. In our family fresh fish is purchased down in Frenchtown the morning of beach day. Frenchtown was established by and is still inhabited by French families who migrated from St. Barts. They are respected fishermen and sometimes farmers on the Virgin Islands. Some families take a boat out and fish themselves, but we didn’t have access to that.
Everyone has their own favorite fried fish and I loved them all! In particular, red snapper was a popular fish growing up. Many of my aunts and great-aunts, true relatives or not, brought the side dishes that they’re famous for such as: potato stuffing, macaroni and cheese, fruit salad, and fruit punch. Some items are made fresh on the beach the day of such as Johnny Cake and fry fish.
After we ate, all the children were admonished not to enter the water for another 30 minutes to let our stomachs rest and settle. This is the time that we spent building sandcastles, talking and catching up with loved ones while playing in the sun. When we could finally get back in the water, rules and wisdom were equally important.
This meant all the children from a very young age had been getting dunked in water to teach us how to swim. We were taught how to hold our breath underwater and to respect the beauty, but danger of large waves. Picnics for a Virgin Islander happen at the shores of our greatest treasure: Mother Ocean.
Of course the crispy fried fish is the star of the show, but no VI picnic would be complete without an array of side options. Some might say they are the stars! First there’s our infamous potato stuffing which consists of white sweet potatoes, colored orange by tomato paste, as well as raisins and sugar. I detested this as a child but can’t live without it now.
Next up is pigeon peas and rice which features seasoned rice also reddened with tomato paste. Some families include Sazon Goya to turn up the flavor but I guess we’ll be making our own now!
ohnny Cake is the equivalent of fried dumplings but flattened. The story of Johnny Cake is that it’s name was originally “journey cake” and was named this when men and women in the Virgin Islands worked in the fields. This was a quick, filling meal for their journey to work.
Virgin Islanders come from a mix of Ciboney, Carib and Arawak Indians. The tribes of Igneri, Taino and Kalinago also walked, hunted, sung, built and fished on our emeralds of the sea. We are very proud of our heritage and gathering together over food in this way honors our ancestors and our oneness with the Caribbean Sea.
Here’s my recipe for a beach fry-up classic, red snapper.
Fried Red Snapper
Red snapper, sliced lemons, lime juice, onion powder, garlic powder, adobo, salt, pepper
- Purchase fresh whole fish down in Frenchtown morning of the beach picnic. One whole fish per person is a general rule of thumb
- Bring to the beach and scale then clean well with water
- Dash in 3 deep slits on each side of the snapper
- Season with lime juice, garlic, pepper, salt, oregano, onion powder and adobo
- Batter fish and sliced lemons with flour by dredging
- Pour in your choice of oil on the skillet and fry both sides about 4 minutes
- Fry sliced lemons (these are amazing)
- Serve grandma first and children next