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THERE’S SERENDIPITY in organizing old books. Where else would I expect to find my signed edition, from 1969, of Erva Boulon’s cookbook? And why else would I research this Virgin Islander’s life?
More than just a cookbook, My Island Kitchen is an autobiography of a woman who led a most adventurous life in the Caribbean.
Early in the 1900s, Erva’s father was a weatherman for the Federal Weather Bureau, now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His assignments took the family from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Havana, Cuba; Key West, Florida; the Dry Tortugas; and back to Key West.
“After an interim of fourteen months in Richmond, Virginia, we were again headed for the West Indies. This time [1909, when Erva was 14] it was Puerto Rico, known as Porto Rico when we first arrived.”
Erva graduated from high school there. In time, she married Paul Boulon “and moved into the country…. My new mode of transportation was horseback. Just try marketing that way even for two.”
In 1928, twelve years and four children later, the Boulons decided to set up a family vacation spot. They found it at Trunk Bay on the Virgin Island of St. John, “then called St. Jan,” as the islands had been Danish as recently as 1917.
“This time,” Erva said, “it was real camping, living on the beach in a construction shed with a lean-to kitchen.” Until their new home and its cistern were completed, Erva and her husband fetched fresh water from a nearby fishing club, twice-daily trips made in their Old Town canoe.
On one of those trips, “it occurred to me that I might use sea water for some of the cooking. It has to be salted anyway….” This worked fine with potatoes, but kidney beans stayed hard as rocks.
There were no St. John vacations during World War II. After six years, the Boulons returned to the Trunk Bay home, now in ruin—and, in 1945, “we proposed to start a Guest House.”
The Trunk Bay Guest House opened its doors in 1947. Back then, it was without electricity, with a kerosene-fueled refrigerator and cooking using bottled gas and charcoal. Obviously, locally sourced ingredients were the order of the day, and Erva perfected her craft.
Her cookbook never had wide circulation, though it is listed at www.amazon.com. Also, it can be perused at http://goo.gl/AtjSnU. My favorite recipe is Fish & Fungi, the latter, an okra-laced polenta. (It’s on pages 37 and 38 of the cookbook, just before the drawing of the sea turtle.)
In the early days, getting to Trunk Bay was a complex trip. First, get to St. Thomas, then take the Cruz Bay Ferry, then yet another smaller boat to Trunk Bay.
One guest “ignored my careful instructions, hired her own launch and set of for St. John.” The woman was aghast when she learned that a “snarly little out-board” would be required to complete her journey.
“My son spotted the bobbing little boat… Puzzled, he went down to the beach where they would land; we have no dock. After introducing himself, he said, ‘You had better take off your shoes and stockings.’
“Our guest drew herself up haughtily and replied, ‘I have never been to a hotel before where I had to take my shoes off to get in!’
“The only answer to this was, ‘But this is not a hotel and you will ruin your shoes.’
“Somewhat mollified, she stepped from the boat onto the wet sand, barefooted, and remained seven weeks!” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013