I was first introduced to green coconuts when I arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1969. At that time there were always several vendors on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront who would set up alongside the seawall with their piles of coconuts, chopping block and sharp machete offering the general public this refreshing treat for the modest price of between 25 cents and a dollar each.
These were not the dark brown, fuzzy, three-eyed, hard-shelled coconuts that I was accustomed to seeing in stateside markets. These were the green slightly immature coconuts that were picked early, before they hardened, turned brown and fell to the ground.
There is a big difference between eating a hard-shelled coconut and a green one. When you crack open a fully mature coconut, you’ll find some concentrated coconut water and a hard white pulp adhering to the shell.
The green nut is quite different. The husk is softer and less fibrous. The water inside is less concentrated and and there is more of it and the meat is soft and sweet like jelly accounting for the popular name, “jelly nut.”
So for a small amount of money, you got a nice drink of coconut water and if you so desired a bit of coconut jelly to boot. Jelly nuts are a very popular item and vendors on St. Thomas had no problem selling out just about as fast as they could open them up and collect the money. Also, the commonly accepted notion that coconut water, especially when mixed with gin, has aphrodisiac qualities, certainly didn’t hurt sales.
Personally, I not only loved coconut water and coconut jelly, but I also loved the cultural experience; the coconut man wielding his sharp machete seemingly without effort, confidently and precisely while holding the coconut in his hand. (At first I was afraid to watch, for fear of the man cutting up more than the coconut if you know what I mean.)
The first cut would be to slice a thin piece of the outer green husk about two or three inches wide and four or five inches long, to make a spoon used later to eat the coconut jelly. Then the husk on the top of the nut would be cut away exposing the thin shell beneath. The next cut would expertly take off just the tip of the shell leaving only the coconut meat itself to close off the hole in the nut. At this point the coconut could be carried away and the drunk later by simply cutting off the top piece of pulp or this could be done on site and you could drink the coconut water right then and there.
After finishing the water, you could ask the coconut man to cut open the nut so you could eat the jelly. In which case he would either lay the nut on a chopping block or hold it in the palm of his hand, and in one swift motion pass the machete through the nut, chopping it in two. The spoon would be removed from the nut and used to scoop the jelly off of the shell.
Going into Business with John Gibney
I found the whole process to be quite impressive and one day, while eating jelly nuts with my friend John Gibney, I mentioned my fascination with coconuts as a business enterprise. John knew all about it, and said that we could easily do it ourselves and so was launched our one-day foray into the jelly nut business.
We started bright and early one morning getting our coconuts from the coco palms growing along the beach on John’s property. They were full-size trees, not the dwarf variety that are so prevalent nowadays. This meant that the coconuts were high up above the ground and not so easy to get at.
I had heard that on the island of Dominica, they used trained monkeys to climb the tall coconut palms and throw them down to gatherers waiting safely below. Safe, that, is if one avoided getting hit by falling coconuts. We didn’t have access to trained monkeys, but this wasn’t a problem, because John could probably out-climb the ablest Dominican simian.
John tossed the coconuts down to me, and I chased them and gathered them up. We then brought my 16-foot fiberglass outboard-powered runabout close to the beach and started to load the coconuts aboard. We filled the boat as much as we could, and John and I had to climbed over the coconuts to take our positions aboard. We motored out of Hawksnest Bay headed east to Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.
I guess we may have let greed overcome common sense because we had put way too many coconuts inside this small craft. The boat was overloaded, we were left with only about twelve inches of free board. That is, the weight of the coconuts made the boat so heavy that we were riding way too low in the water. The run from St. John to St. Thomas can be a bit rough and between the big seas and the small free board we began to take on water. Luckily we were going downwind, so the effects of the waves were moderated, and we were able to control the situation by John baling out water with a calabash while I manned the wheel. We reached the St. Thomas waterfront safe and sound, with no more than a few good scares and a crash course in having respect for the sea.
We set up shop on the waterfront. John was the coconut man. I collected the money.
Now John, notwithstanding the lightness of his skin color, was every bit as good with a machete as any other West Indian. With his long blond hair and tall stature, many native St. Johnians referred to him as Tarzan. But, he was virtually unknown on St. Thomas and the sight of a white boy cutting open coconuts on the Charlotte Amalie harborfront was a little more than some local people were ready for. You could see the nervousness in their eyes as John, albeit skillfully, cut open the jelly nuts with his machete. Sometimes customers even refused to let him do his job, and instead insisted on opening their own coconuts. Nonetheless, we sold out our supply of jelly nuts in good time and motored back home to St. John with some good money in our pockets. But for me, much more than the money, the overall experience was something that to this day brings a big smile to my face when I think about that Virgin Islands morning some forty years ago.