St. Croix native Digby Stridiron is on a mission to make the U.S. territory part of our national dialogue on American cuisine. The JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alum and Norman Van Aken protégé is also an official culinary ambassador for the U.S. Virgin Islands, charged with promoting Crucian culture and cooking to a wider audience. For Stridiron, that runs the gamut from hosting multiple Friends of James Beard Benefits at his restaurant Balter, to advocating for better sourcing and standards for school lunch in St. Croix, to educating the local public about the natural bounty of their own land. In anticipation of his upcoming Beard House dinner showcasing his “wild-to-table” philosophy, we spoke with Stridiron about his heritage, his inspiration, and his hopes for food-system change at home and beyond.
JBF: What do you think is the most pressing food-system issue the people of the Virgin Islands are facing?
Digby Stridiron: I feel the two most pressing issues are the lack of knowledge about healthier, locally sourced ingredients, and our public school system’s lack of access to healthier and more sustainable options for the kids. For the most part we are still serving them canned fruit cocktail and peaches! We have so many local fruits such as melons, mangoes, and sapotes that I believe our kids would appreciate more if they were given the option.
JBF: How would you define Crucian cuisine?
DS: Crucian cookery, like most West Indian cuisine, uses lots of vegetables, root starches, fruits, greens, and secondary cuts of meat. It’s very Old World. Crucian cuisine is a combination of the foods of the indigenous Indians (the Tainos and Kalinago), the different colonies that settled here (Danish, French, Spanish, Dutch, etc.), and the African diaspora, which for us draws heavily from Ghana. You see African dishes like callaloo and red beans and rice reinterpreted with Spanish spices and olives. It’s a flavorful cuisine that plays on peppers and acid.
JBF: You’ve talked about being interested in going beyond farm-to-table and really exploring the concept of “wild-to-table”—can you talk about foraging opportunities in the USVI and how that has informed your menu at Balter?
DS: Our menu at Balter is influenced daily by both the local product that comes through the door, and our wild-to-table philosophy. We climb trees for yuca flowers and fresh September plums. We forage fruits and greens like sea purslane, pepper grass, mustards, and even salt. We are able to forage and hunt for proteins such as whelks, cockles, conch, doves, wild pigs, and even wild venison. With so many microclimates we’re able to acquire a lot of different products in the USVI.
JBF: What is the one food-system issue that keeps you up at night?
DS: I’m really bothered by what’s being served to the children in schools across the country. We live in a society where our food choices are made based on what’s cheapest rather than what’s healthy. I don't think our children should eat foods that are solely defined as "fit for human consumption!"
JBF: What does it mean to be culinary ambassador for the U.S. Virgin Islands?
DS: Being the culinary ambassador of the USVI and having the opportunity to represent the islands in which I was born and raised is a dream! I’m reminded daily of our history and culture and feel a responsibility to document that through food. It’s a beautiful place to call home with vibrant people everywhere. As the culinary ambassador, I feel like it’s more than just representing our culture—I also have to speak out about issues that affect our food systems. Food inequality is real: there are people across the U.S. starving on a daily basis, and it’s important that we as a community know the facts.
JBF: You’re cooking at the Beard House on November 5—can you tell us the inspiration behind your menu?
DS: For our James Beard dinner we plan on foraging as many local ingredients as we possibly can while staying true to our ethos at Balter. Diners will get to try locally inspired dishes like our shaddock-cured pork belly with pikliz, our sour orange–infused Cruzan Single Barrel Rum cocktail, and our mofongo with bacalao-crusted snapper. I’m excited about bringing our Crucian culture to the James Beard house!