Lucia Henley
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 the kitchen."

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 filling.

"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 behind.'

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 the shoreline.

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.