Cultural demonstrations return to Annaberg
By ANDREA MILAM St. John Correspondent Virgin Islands Daily News
ST. JOHN — First, the 2017 hurricanes wreaked havoc at Annaberg, putting a pause on longstanding cultural demonstrations at the historic site. Then, just as demonstrations began to resume, the pandemic shut down the outreach. Now, with these stops and starts in the past, Olivia Christian and Charles “Do Good” Jackson have resumed their posts at the island’s most complete and accessible sugar plantation ruins, breathing life into the visitor experience.
Inside the cookhouse, whose chimney collapsed during Irma and was later rebuilt, Christian demonstrates cooking methods for an array of local dishes like saltfish and dumpling, red peas soup, and kallaloo. There is no running water or electricity at the cookhouse, so Christian cooks over a charcoal fire, much like those who were enslaved at the site hundreds of years ago would have done.
“I tell visitors the long way of cooking a dish and I show them the easy way,” said Christian, who’s been doing Annaberg cookhouse demonstrations since 2007. “I am using a kitchen that was designed in the early 1900s. It has three burners and an oven, and our fuel is charcoal.”
Interacting with visitors comes naturally to Christian, whose hospitality career began in 1984 at the Caneel Bay Resort. She studied hotel and restaurant management during a stint living in Texas, and when she returned to St. John, Christian was hired as a fee collector with the Virgin Islands National Park.
“You might meet somebody and have a conversation, but for the most part, it was routine,” Christian said of her role as fee collector. “Working for the National Park was my dream job. I always thought it was something I would enjoy, telling people about my island.”
Christian grew up in her family’s bakery, working as a waitress and bartender. When now-retired VINP ranger Denise Georges told Christian the cookhouse position was open, Christian figured she could learn on the job.
“I hadn’t really baked before but I know how things are supposed to taste,” she said. “I know how I like it so I figured it out. It was scary at first being at Annaberg because it’s so far out and there’s no current. It’s a mindset you have to get into. I figured I had to mimic my predecessors as far as baking style, but Denise said, ‘This is your cookhouse, you do you,’ and Ms. Olivia was born.”
It’s safe to say Christian has found her footing in the Annaberg cookhouse, where she moves with ease between whisking fish fritter batter, adding charcoal to the fire, and scrubbing dishes in the wash bin she refills from five-gallon water cooler bottles. In addition to connecting with visitors, Christian said she’s found much to appreciate about her cookhouse role.
“Look at my view,” she said, indicating with a wide sweep of her arm the milky blues of Mary Creek and the sloping hills of Tortola blanketed in green. “It’s quiet. I think a lot and I like cooking. Part of my experience is meeting people from different places. I’ve never been to England, but I can speak to people from England for a minute and it’s kind of like being there.”
Down the hill from Christian, Jackson’s effusive nature and incredible breadth of plant knowledge draws visitors to explore the Annaberg garden. Jackson practices what he preaches, evident from the moment he meets with visitors and pulls down his shirt collar to reveal a leaf from the noni plant, also known as the painkiller tree, which he presses on his skin to alleviate aches and pains. Jackson credits his grandmother, Estella Stagger, for teaching him everything he knows about gardening.
During a tour through the garden, Jackson identifies his plants with ease — pumpkin, sugar apple, sugarcane, lime, basil, and pomegranate are among the many species he’s successfully cultivated at the small Annaberg plot. Each plant identification is accompanied by Jackson’s knowledge of the plant’s medicinal properties, a taste of the fruit, or a crushing of the fragrant leaves for visitors to inhale.
Jackson’s approach to the pests that try to thwart his hard work is unique. Although the garden is encircled with fencing, deer still find their way through to snack on the garden’s plants. Sometimes, Jackson will leave a branch from the noni tree outside the garden as a peace offering of sorts, and overnight the deer will eat the branch clean, opting to bypass the garden. The joy Jackson finds in the garden is multiplied by his ability to share his knowledge with visitors.
“I love people,” he said. “I learn a lot from people, like different ways of planting. All the trees are medicinal, so I try to give people as much as I could. I’ve been here for 16 years now and I love my job.”
Christian and Jackson present their cultural demonstrations Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. thanks to funding from the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park. VINP volunteer docents are stationed at Annaberg from Monday through Friday, and you can sign up on the Friends website for a guided tour of Annaberg every second Friday of the month. The Friends is looking to hire a basket weaver to complement the current Annaberg cultural demonstrations. Those interested should contact Friends Program Director Mark Gestwicki at email@example.com. To sign up for the guided tour, visit https://friendsvinp.org/seminars-and-more/.