by Chuck Pishko
We are used to seeing whole milk in the supermarket along with cheese and ice cream. We don’t see milk as it was used in old times.
Cattle raising became a major industry on St. John after the demise of the dreaded sugar plantations. The island was great for creating pastures and the cattle herds prospered.
While large (100+) cattle estates could be found at Carolina, Leinster Bay, Abraham’s Fancy, and Susannaberg, smaller herds were found all over the island.
Because of the distance to the large markets on St. Thomas, milk was processed differently here. The cream would be hand-separated and made into butter without the use of a butter churn.
The young women would fill a glass flask with cream and shake it on their padded laps for about thirty minutes. This produced “the finest butter you’ve ever tasted” according to Miss Nita Christian and Mrs. Eulita Jacobs who made butter this way.
Sweet buttermilk was also produced in the process.
Many other friends whom I have asked about banicleba have fond memories of helping their grandmothers and mothers in preparing this important island food.
Lito Valls in his Creole dictionary “What a Pistarkle” defines banicleba as naturally soured milk. He reports that the word derives from the Welsh phrase “Baugh naugh claugh baugh.”
Here’s how it was done: the milk remaining after the cream was removed was poured into calabashes, placed on cool stones in a cabinet, and covered overnight. The milk curdled and resembled cottage cheese and/or the bands of fluffy lumpy clouds we often see before a rain storm.
We all remember “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey; along came a spider and sat down beside her, and frightened Miss Muffet away.” I guess the word “curds” is more poetic than banicleba.
Here on St. John the nutritious whey (like very thin skimmed milk) was fed to the hogs and chickens. Sugar or salt was added to the banicleba before it was eaten.
According to several St. Johnians interviewed by NPS Ranger Matilda Marsh in the mid-1970s, banicleba was an important part of everyone’s diet.
Mr. Sultan Samuel who worked with the cattle at Carolina and who milked cows everyday “whether rain fall or shine burn,” told how very little milk was sold but rather used to make butter, banicleba, and cheese.
Interestingly, he was a jack of all trades and went on to build the original boiler for the bay oil still at Carolina from scratch.
Miss Grace Roberts told Miss Marsh that the homemade butter with the huge five cent breads her grandmother made were absolutely delicious.
Miss Carmen Francis described banicleba in detail for Miss Marsh and her brother Earl told of the pride his father, Carl, had for the majority of items on his table that were produced on his farm and the island.
Neptune Richards explained the economics of selling milk to Ranger Marsh.
“To sell milk you have to pay a man for a whole day,” said Richards. “He goes out with a couple dozen bottles of milk, only God knows when he’ll return. Then you have to take what he sold the milk for to pay him.”
“You won’t get any profit,” Richards continued. “What I do is set up the milk and make banicleba.”
You can see from the information on banicleba presented above that the interviews are rich in many aspects of St. John life. Those days are gone but the memories live on and need to be passed on to the children.
While small parts of the Matilda Marsh interviews have been published, a concerted effort must be made to make this important part of our island heritage generally available.
What do you think?