`HOSPITALITY greets you,'' Ma Chance cooed from the shadows of her mango-sequestered porch, just feet from the main, seaside road here. The pink flamingos lining her porch weren't moving; the parrot and dozen-odd finches overhead were. ``You've got a reputation as the best French Creole cook in the Caribbean,'' I said, once inside her antique-filled, in-home restaurant.
``I hope you can prove that,'' she said.
A friend of mine who frequents this half-French, half-Dutch island east of Puerto Rico told me that Ma Chance is a local legend. Three US guidebooks concurred. Ma Chance, who learned cooking from her mother to serve at her father's cockfights 50 years ago, just shrugged.
``In Creole cooking we use our own special `seez'nins', so you won't need any more once it's on the table,'' she said in a sweet West Indian drawl.
She was right. There was no need to add any seasonings to anything. And there seemed to be no point in trying to find out the secrets of her St. Maarten way of cooking, a style that's a combination of African and Carib Indian beginnings with French colonial influence, and is superb.
I had followed the directions for ``an experience you'll never forget'' and called Ma Chance's Creole Cooking for reservations two nights before. Ma Chance allows as many patrons to her in-home restaurant as she feels up to (as many as 200 on special occasions, but usually about 10 to 25).
You soon realize there's no menu at Ma Chance's table, but you're sure to like many things in the 10 to 15 courses she serves for about $35 per person.
We started with a delicious Creole soup. Then there was stuffed eggplant, local conch, codfish cakes, and plantains. As she and another woman served, Ma Chance told us how she started the first restaurant on the island -- back when there were no tourists and everyone got around by mule or horse and buggy.
Now kitchen assistants cook from her recipes in a book published in the United States last year, ``Ma Chance's French Caribbean Creole Cooking'' (Putnam). Ma Chance supervises the preparation and early cooking, then slips into a flowery, full-length Caribbean gown to personally greet and seat her guests.
I was barely finishing my lobster and avocado with mustard sauce when the main course was brought out: stuffed, curried crab with celery, sweet peppers, and onions.
Dessert was a viciously sweet coconut pie made from local coconuts. As we finished our meal, a young boy appeared almost unnoticed to play a record of the St. Maarten anthem, sung in French.
The evening was as memorable as the guidebooks promised, and the food was at least as spicy hot as Szechuan is to Cantonese in Chinese cuisine. It seemed just right to me, but my friends drank lots of water.
Before we left, Ma Chance showed us the guest book with two sets of signatures she was especially proud of. One was Mr. and Mrs. Billy Carter, Plains, Ga. The other was Mr. and Mrs. James Carter, Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C. Ma Chance's Creole Soup One pound split green peas 7 cups water Fistful of pumpkin squash, mashed Two sweet potatoes, mashed 1 stalk celery, chopped 1 whole, small onion, chopped 2 cloves garlic, mashed 1/4 teaspoon black pepper Little finger's worth of salt pork 1 tablespoon butter 1/4 teaspoon sugar Salt to taste (about 1/4 teaspoon) Sprig of thyme
Add water to peas. Bring to boil and continue boiling until peas dissolve. Add mashed potatoes and squash. (Add more water if too thick.)
Add chopped celery, onion, garlic, pepper, salt pork, butter, sugar, and thyme.Stir for 1 minute. Add salt to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes; strain and serve.
Serves 5 to 6.