Profile Written By: Carol M. Bareuther, RD
You can't miss the treats-laden table that appears in the run up to holidays like
Christmas in December and Carnival in April and is set up on the side of Route 32 next
to the Frydenhoj Ball Park. Here, Lucia Henley, an extremely good cook and more so
culinary cultural bearer bar none, sells her homemade sweets and savories that each
offers a traditional taste of the Virgin Islands.
There's tropical fruit jamstropical fruit jams and jellies, dried
fruit topped sweet breads, coconut tarts, rock hard long lasting coconut sugar cakes,
peanut brittle like dundersla, hard sticks of candy wrapped with pieces of red-colored
taffy called 'Jawbone' or 'Danish Girls, bottles of hot pepper sauce, ground seasonings
made of fresh herbs and spices, pates filled with seasoned conch, saltfish or ground
beef, and signature liquors such as Guavaberry rum. What makes Henley and her
roadside stand unique is that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to buy these bygone
goodies anywhere else.
"My mother, Daisy Testamark, grew up on Bordeaux Mountain on St. John," says
Henley. "She and my father had no electricity so she would corn or salt her own pork
and fish to preserve it."
Back then, cooks didn't write down their recipes. Instead, they passed them hands-on
from generation to generation. This is how Henley learned.
Cooking was both a way of life and a profession for Testamark. She grew provisions like
sweet potatoes and tania as well as cultivated guavaberries, limes and hot peppers, to
name a few, while her husband made charcoal. The two would travel by donkey to sell
their produce and charcoal in town. At home, Testamark prepared family meals from her
homegrown ingredients over a coal pot. This was the life in which Henley was born.
The bud of tourism began to take root in St. Thomas back in the 1930s and 1940s.
Testamark moved to the island to work at a small guesthouse run by the Lockhart
family. Her culinary skills grew, as did the number of visitors to St. Thomas, and over
the years Testamark built up an impressive resume working as chef in the old
Flamboyant Hotel, where Marriott Frenchman's Reef Resort is located today, and the
old Mountain Top and Windward Passage Hotels. She also ran her own restaurants in
downtown Charlotte Amalie.
"I grew up helping my mother in her restaurants," Henley says. "I can remember being
12 or 13 at the time and working the counter of her Daisy's Family Corner by the
Catholic School (St. Thomas). When I wasn't selling, I was always under her, watching
her cook and bake. I love working with flour. We'd make coconut and raisin buns and
they's always be big sellers. They I started making cookies and selling them too. My
mother had no trouble with me as a teenager. She always knew where to find me - in
Shopping for ingredients meant heading over to Lucy's Market on Main Street, or to
Market Square on the weekends, or to Tortola Wharf when a ship came in. Still, there
were times when key ingredients weren't available and Testamark had to make do. One
day, when there were no ripe fruits, she stewed down several tomatoes to use as tart
"My mother sent my brother and me to the wharf in Frenchtown with a basket of these
tarts and told us not to tell the fishermen what's inside. She told us to make up a story,"
Henley says. "So, when the first fishermen bought one, we told him we couldn't
remember what the filling was. He bite into it and said it tasted like guava. Everyone
thought they were guava after that and the whole basket sold."
One of Testamark's signature dishes was Stuffed Crab Backs.
"I remember going to Magens Bay. There were lots of land crabs there back then," says
Henley. "We'd gather up a bunch of them, put them in a cage or oil drum and feed them
corn or lettuce and carrots to clean them out. You have to do that because the crabs eat
poisonous plants like manchioneel."
Next, the crabs were boiled and the meat meticulously picked clean from the shell -
usually Henley's job. The crab meat was then combined with a mixture of chopped and
sauteed seasonings such as celery, onion, thyme, garlic, tomato and hot pepper, and
then stuffed back into the crab shell. Finally, the crab was covered with a combination of
cheddar cheese, breadcrumbs and seasonings that would seal in the juices while the
crab browned in the oven. This process could take from early morning until late at night
depending on the number of crabs.
Yet, the effort was surely worth it.
For example, when former Delegate to Congress, Ron deLugo, would broadcast on
WSTA as radio personality 'Mango Jones' prior to his political career, he always
mentioned Testamark by name and asked her via the airways to save him one of her
Stuffed Crab Backs.
Later, after Testamark passed away in 1979, another well-known local chef, Arona
Petersen, tasted Henley's Stuff Crab Backs at a Carnival Food Fair and proclaimed in
her weekly column in the Virgin Islands Daily News that 'Daisy had left her touch
The secret to the Stuffed Crab Backs, and Testamark's other dishes, was in the
seasoning. How to make seasoning and season foods properly is something Henley
surely did learn from her mother.
"I can remember as a child I would dance when I tasted seasoning," says Henley, of the
lip-smacking mix of vegetables, herbs and spices that she pounds down to a fine
powder with a mortar and pestle.
By the time she was a teenager, Henley had picked up another of Testamark's traits.
"My mother could walk up the stairs and by smell alone know if a pot needed more
onions or other ingredient," she says.
Today, Henley has this same keen sense of smell. Like her mother too, she knows just
what a dish needs by taste without having to look at recipe.
Beyond the list of specialties that Henley prepares and sells under her Native Delicacies
label at her Frydenhoj Ball Park-located stand, she regularly keeps prepared food
traditions alive as well and offers a menu of these for sale at annual food fairs.
For example, there's Souse or boiled pig's feet. Henley boils the pork until tender,
throws the cooking water away and adds new in order to prevent an unpleasant
gelatinous liquid from forming. Seasonings include plenty of lime. sliced onion and hot
pepper for a fresh tangy taste.
There's Crab and Rice, made from the same crabs used for stuffed crab backs, and
Whelks and Rice. Whelks are sea snails harvested by local fisherman from rocks along
Gundy, which is made of salted herring, peppers, onions, salad oil and vinegar and
garnished with onion rings and sliced beets, is a dish that harkens back the days when
Denmark owned the Virgin Islands.
Kallaloo starts with a hambone and is simmered with ingredients such as salt beef, pig
tail, corned conch, spinach, okra, thyme and hot peppers. Most people serve kallaloo
over a mounded ball of cornmeal fungi. Not Henley.
"My mother always put the kallaloo in the bowl first and then the fungi on top," she says.
"She called it her floating island."
Some people make Potato Stuffing with instant mashed potatoes and a little tomato
sauce for color. Henley's recipe is much more robust. There's onion, celery, parsley,
thyme, capers, tomato paste, black olives, sugar, raisins, vinegar and a little hot pepper.
These ingredients are all stirred together, baked and served on the winter holiday table.
Henley's desire to make her foods look as good as they taste also comes out in many
ways. There's hand-shaped dough roses that adorn the middle of her fruit tarts and
colorful bits of material and ribbons that top jars of jams, jellies, stewed fruits, hot
pepper sauce and liqueurs.
"What I like best is to hear the compliments. It keeps me going," Henley says.