This article originally ran in 2003 when many of my colleagues from the nutrition department happened to go to St. John for spring break. If anyone is headed there this year, please look for Sonia’s Hot Sauce, which was for sale then at the office of the national park headquarters, and let me know if she is still kicking it up in Cruz Bay.
Many sun-bronzed faces on the streets of State College happily radiate the heat that they absorbed over break. For a change, I was one of the escapees. I went to the Virgin Island of St. John, a four-hour flight from frozen Newark to a paradise of turquoise waters, crystalline beaches and blazing sun. Many other Centre County folks were on the small island, and with only two roads and one town, we eventually ran into most of them.
Two-thirds of the island is a national park, a fact that limits commercial development — as does the steep terrain and lack of rainfall. Goods are available but expensive, because everything is shipped in, but the sun is free, as are most of the beaches. You slip into the water, put on a mask and snorkel and enter a dappled aquamarine world of brilliant parrot fish, synchronized squid, silvery barracudas and gliding sting rays.
The island’s heat is reflected in its cuisine, especially in one product. Hot sauce, available even at the national park headquarters office in “downtown” Cruz Bay, captures the incendiary nature.
On arrival, we waited for the ferry, finding relief from the afternoon sun with the locals in the shade. One woman came by selling nuts: “Get your protein!” Another sat with groceries against the far wall. Eventually, she opened her grocery bag of Scotch bonnet peppers and started snapping the stems off. Intrigued, I slid over and met Sonia Sprauve. I asked what she could possibly be doing with so many of the hottest peppers in the world, and she said, “Make sauce!”
Two days later I visited Sonia at her house, where her kitchen was stacked with jars and bottles for her products. She showed me her garden in the back where she grows peppers and herbs. She shared the salt that she harvests at Salt Pond and showed me her seasoned salt mixed with green peppers, onions and herbs that she rubs on fish and chicken before cooking. We sat for two hours and talked food, while I tried her sauces drop by drop, sprinkled on crisp pork rinds that she shook out of a jar. Her prepared sauces are similar to our own local first-rate hot sauce, Seth’s, produced by Scott Storll, but she had one product that I had never encountered — hot pepper-flavored vinegar. Those Scotch bonnets were jammed into a narrow jar with garlic cloves, some sprigs of thyme and other herbs and a touch of olive oil. The flavor is exquisitely clear and one drop packs a wallop.
I tried some of her products in the minimalist cooking that I did down there, making a green salad with salmon boosted by that flavored vinegar that drew rave reviews. We ran into each other at the post office and spent another couple of hours exchanging history — and recipes. And now I know a little bit more about what it means to live in the islands, have a job, kids and a small business on the side.
We each get what we want from a vacation; some get tan, some take photos, some collect shells, buy souvenirs or just relax. Me, I sat with a woman and talked food for hours, and I tasted that island.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania, “ of several iBook cookbooks (”Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink. com and can be reached at chef firstname.lastname@example.org.