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West Indian Vegetable Garden

Pre-Columbian Foodstuffs
Manioc (also known as cassava, yucca and tapioca)…was the most important Indian food, and was probably bought by the Arawaks from South America to the islands. Oldendorp reporting in mid 1700’s: “…necessity has taught them to plant the cassava, from those knotted, bulbous roots they prepare for themselves a kind of bread, which is often their sole source of food”

Cassava is a shrubby, tropical, perennial plant growing tall, sometimes reaching 15 feet, with leaves varying in shape and size. The edible parts are the tuberous root and leaves. The tuber (root) is somewhat dark brown in color and grows up to 2 feet long. Cassava’s starchy roots produce more food energy per unit of land than any other staple crop, and cassava supplied most of the calories for the Caribs. However, cassava’s primary disadvantage is its very low protein content, less than 1%.

Cassava has another disadvantage; the fleshy roots contain poisonous compounds that must be removed. Shredding the roots and squeezing out the juice removes much of the toxic compounds. Heat used to dry the resulting flour removes the remaining compounds. The resulting flour is very bland, rather like corn meal and flour. The flour can be mixed with water and the dough cooked on a large griddle to make large cassava flat-breads. In many areas, cassava breads are the staple, sometimes only food, consumed for considerable periods of time. The resulting diet results in chronic protein deficiencies.

Oldendorp reported that the Caribs also… “plant some sugarcane, pineapples, and cotton. The first of these they suck on raw…and the last is spun by the women.”

Provision Ground
The food of the slaves was limited in scope, and other than at cane harvesting time, was frequently nutritionally inadequate in both calories and protein to sustain the their hard labor.

Because of the ease of cultivation, cassava continued as one of the most important foods for the African slaves that labored on the plantations.

C.G.A. Oldendorp reporting in A Caribbean Mission: “Each family is given a piece of land by their master, which they cultivate. From this, they are to produce their own means of sustenance. In particular, the Negro plants his garden with cassava, potatoes and yams. The former serves as his daily bread, whereas the later two replace it in time of emergency. Maize or Welsh corn also belongs to the Negro’s essential crops.

“As the blacks have to work every day in the week, except for the occasional celebrations, they only have Sunday free for themselves to plant their own grounds. However, they have for the most of the year, except during harvest time, half, and sometimes the whole of Saturday also free…”

Oldendorp described a typical diet on a normal working day: The field workers are called to work at four o’clock in the morning. From daybreak, or often before, the blacks work until eight or nine o’clock, when they have about half an hour free for lunch. Each one sits himself down and eats what he has. Usually they have funie (fungi) with them, which is made of corn meal pressed into large clumps or balls. Some also have a piece of salted meat with it; others, who have nothing for lunch, chew on a couple of sugar canes, if it is ripe. Following lunch, they work again until 12 o’clock when they have 1½ hours for the mid-day meal, after which they work until sunset, when each one, if it is crop time, takes a bundle of canes, which they have cut during the day, and throws them into the corral as food for the animals which are kept there at night. Thereafter until 9 or 10 o’clock they carry the dried tops of the cane for fuel to the cook house…But a black who has no family has a much more difficult time of it in that often in the middle of the day, when he comes from work, and has no good food in the house, he has to walk over the hills to the provision grounds, and dig up for himself some potatoes or yams. He then roasts these as his mid day meal. If he has a herring with it, even if it is rotten, then he has a special meal…

According to Johan Christian Schmidt, a Dane who worked as a manager on La Grande Princesse plantation during the 1780’s:

“Concerning the blacks’ food, each has a piece of ground, on which he can plant what he desires for subsistence. For the bosals, (slaves newly arrived from Africa) one usually has to give them a whole year of food, until they can support themselves with their own land, even though one still occasionally gives them bread and salted food.

The following are what the blacks plant for themselves on their plots:

  1. Small corn…
  2. Large corn, which one can plant when the rains fall throughout the whole year. One breaks the ordinary green parts off and sells them in the towns as good for horses, by which they can save some “reals” for clothes and necessities for the house.
  3. Potatoes, which are usually planted in June or July, and that very easily…these potatoes are very sweet and nourishing to eat.
  4. Yams…bears richly, especially when planted by itself
  5. Cassava is a tuber which is very poisonous. It is shredded into small pieces, the juice is pressed into a pan and it is laid in the sun, whereby all the poison is removed from it.
  6. …Pampuns” (pumpkins?) as melons which the (blacks) find among the sugar cane, along with “koncumer,” that is wild cucumber.
  7. Kinglambu; from this they make “Kalate” (“Callalous” (sic) with kinglambus being “okra”), which is a kind of chopped cabbage.
  8. Beans of various kinds
  9. Tobacco, part of which is for their own use and part for sale.
  10. In addition to these above mentioned types, most of which they have planted themselves, the blacks still find many fruits in the bushes, part of which they eat themselves, but most of which they sell in the towns, such as lemons, large pomegranates, oranges, “Gau” apples, cinnamon, gitter greens, wild plums, cherries and guava, and many other fruits, which grow in the bushes on the northside.”

Oldendorp further reported: “In addition to those crops, which he extracts from his land by hard labor, the wild bush provides him with a quantity of fruit which cost him nothing more than the time he spends to gather it

Among the native trees producing fruit mentioned by Oldendorp, writing in 1766 included:

The grape tree (Coccoloba uvifera, locally called the “sea-grape”) …when ripe, the fruit are dark violet in color, having a flesh that is tasty, sweet and juicy, although there is not much of it because an oval shaped pit about the size of a hazelnut makes up the greater part of the berry…these trees grow best by the sea

The Kakos, or the kakoa plum (Chrysobalanus icaco, locally called cocoplum)…dark brown, red, or white in color. The kernel of the large nut inside has about the same taste as the almond.

The Mamay tree (Mammea americana, locally known as Mamee Apple) …its taste is similar to that of a good quince and is, for the most part, very pleasant. It does not, however, suit the palate of everyone.

The fruit of the susack tree (Annona muricata, locally called sour sop)…are both healthful and refreshing. Negroes, especially maroon Negroes, (runaway slaves) often live exclusively on them.

Many of the fruits and vegetables described after the Danes purchased the island of St. Croix in 1736 were not native to the Caribbean, but brought to the islands by the Spanish, Dutch and French who occupied the island.

CGA Oldendorp, who observed conditions on St. Croix from 1766-68 observed “The excellent pineapple (Bromelia ananas) plant is right at home in these islands, often growing in great numbers between the rocks in entirely wild regions.”

He mentions “the pindar-nut or ground nut (peanut)… a finger-length long and grows on the roots…are edible, tasting like the hazel nut; as well as the “knotty roots of the tannier, or the edible Arons … a plant as pleasing and healthful food for the Negroes as is the batata…and Indian cabbage, who tender leaves are used like spinach…”

This wide variety of fruits and vegetables both native and imported, provided food for Indians, early colonists and African slaves and continues to provide a culinary heritage for contemporary Virgin Islanders.