Fete de la Cuisine, the island’s premier culinary festival and a bounty of local and international flavours, is underway – taking place November 7-12. A key feature of the gastronomical line-up is a competition of traditional foods and beverages, which is open to the public, taking place on November 12. Reminiscent of Christmas, the contest is focusing on local drinks and desserts, such as guavaberry rum, sorrel drinks, lime- and other fruit-punches, potato and bread puddings and carrot cakes. Promoters are aiming to create excitement around these products and keep traditions alive, encouraging young and old alike to take part. Leading up to the festival, The Weekender is speaking to a few culinary connoisseurs. This week, we interviewed Theresita James-Van Gurp, better known as Terry.
Theresita is a true all-rounder, open to making and trying just about any flavour of cake, pudding, tart, patty, soup, stew and side dish – “you name it, you got it”. She learned most of her cooking and baking skills from her grandmother and aunt here in St. Maarten and Home Economics classes in school in Guyana. Her grandmother was also a great all-round baker and chef, and Terry has fond memories of her endlessly in the kitchen, with lots of family and friends coming over to the home to enjoy her cooking.
Not really one to follow written recipes and precise measurements, she still manages consistent results by working with memory, touch and feel – and – most of all, love, which is what she tells people was probably the missing ingredient – if they were lucky enough to get a recipe from her, but not lucky enough to get the right results.
Throughout the years and while doing other jobs, including secretary and cashier work, and owning two businesses (a Front Street beachwear store and a convenience store in Holland House hotel), Terry has always enjoyed cooking and baking for extended friends and family. She also sold banana bread, upside down pineapple cake, and Johnny cakes stuffed with everything from chicken to salt fish and Christmas ham at various gas stations and stores.
However, the real food memories come from the most exciting time of the year – Christmastime. These days, she has slowed down for health-related reasons; however, she looks back fondly at the 35-year stretch where her house was the place to be for a real family feast every Boxing Day. Terry’s late husband, who passed away in 2008, was the prominent St. Maarten figure Vance James Jr., known for his roles as former Commissioner, Island Council Member, and managing director of the Voice of St. Maarten radio network. While most knew his public life, only some knew that he was also an avid cook.
Every year, both of them would plan out and prepare the Boxing Day feast, with local and family favourites, such as rice and peas, macaroni pie, sweet potato pie, corn pie, turkey, ham, veggies, salads and other side dishes, and her mother’s favourite, a stew made of pigtail, sweet potato and pumpkin. Preparations were adjusted according to everyone’s liking. Tired of baked turkey? She’d chop and stew it instead, making that more tender dish the new favourite.
In fact, what became a feature of Boxing Day at the James’ home was the fact that Vance James loved to seek out and try new recipes from different magazines. Every year, guests knew they could expect one or two completely different dishes. Terry remembers two of his dishes in particular that were hits – a corn soup, and a beef and dumpling stew made with beer.
Everything was made fresh, and it took days of preparation,” she recalls. In later years, after the passing of her husband and when Terry needed to slow down and focus on taking care of her health, she “felt like a fish out of water” come Christmastime.
The hard work was all about sharing enjoyment and good times with family and friends, bringing everyone together. It was a joy to do, she shared. Nowadays, she still makes treats for family and friends for special occasions, and is still ever-open to experimenting and trying new things.