At the recent Group for the East End gala at Wölffer Estate Vineyards, the tone was grave–given recent shellfish closures, losses of farmland and other evidence of our fragile landscape. But it was also celebratory. The welcoming remarks–from Assemblyman Fred Thiele and actor Alec Baldwin–all offered a compelling thank you to the staff at the Group for the East End who have worked for four decades to protect our farms and fields, keep pollutants out of our waters, and educate the next generation of eco-minded citizens. (I had the honor of speaking as well, and my remarks are reprinted below.)
Dinner time conversation, over Sungold cherry tomatoes and Wölffer white–turned to the fact that the Group’s mission really ain’t far from the hearts of the region’s hordes of locavores. The group’s head, Bob DeLuca, is a fan of bluefish and potatoes, as we know. In fact, the Group’s campaign to reverse the decline of local water quality would deliver a boost to our working waterfronts, as well as everyone who likes local seafood. If we can’t eat and drink from our landscape, after all, then what have we done to it?
But it wasn’t all seriousness. The night was worthwhile for the standup bit that Baldwin delivered around “osprey polls.” “Which I think is just an unfortunate term,” he said to steady laughter, and then proceeded to drum up nearly $20,000 (video here) in “osprey poll” pledges in a couple minutes. Nearly as fast as he can shuck a dozen clams.
Transcript of remarks from Brian Halweil, Group for the East End gala, June 23, 2012.
I want to tell you what Alec Baldwin, Bob Deluca, and my 4-year-old daughter Clio have in common.
The first time I met Alec it was over a dozen clams. He told me he hadn’t shucked a clam since he was a kid in Massapequa and then he proceeded to effortlessly open the dozen in what seemed like less than a minute, all the while telling me how the neglect of the South Shore environment had caused the decline of its massive clam beds.
When I first met Bob DeLuca it was while he roasted a bluefish with Long Island potatoes, and described why the Group for the East End’s mission isn’t just to protect the landscape, but everything that landscape yields.
And, last week, when my daughter and I biked past a field in Sag Harbor that has three McMansions being built on it, she asked, “Will we still be able to play in that field and gather berries after they build those houses?”
For Alec, for Bob, for my daughter, it was food that connected to them to the environment. Local food is a sort of gateway drug for conservation. Because supporting our local farmers and fishers won’t just keep money in our neighbors pockets, it won’t just taste better and be more nutritious, it won’t just save fossil fuels used in shipping and packaging. It will also give value to those farm fields and wetlands and bays nearby.
We live in a blessed place that gives us a complete gastronomic experience, from world-class wine to micro-beers, from Montauk stripers to Sagaponack tomatoes, from Riverhead duck to Cutchogue peaches whose juice drips down our chins.
At Edible magazine, we want our readers to know, crave and love the farmers, fishers, winemakers and other edible artisans who feed us. And to support them.
Because if we don’t support them, they go away. And then we’ve got to import our food from elsewhere, and it will never be as good, and our landscape will look very different.
And that’s why the Group for the East End is so important. It was the group that helped pen legistation in the 1970s that helped farmers and landowners preserve 10s of thousands of acres in Suffolk County. This vineyard exists because of that legislation. Over the last decade, the Group has exposed 60,000 children to environmental education that will make them the eco-minded citizens of tomorrow.
And today it is the Group that is pushing Suffolk County to upgrade municipal and residential septic systems so we don’t have to worry about brown tides and deadzones and whether our shellfish are safe to eat.
That’s why I want to urge you to do two things tonite and beyond:
First, choose what you eat and drink as if the East End depended on it. Build your meals around what’s coming from the bays and fields right now. Dine out at restaurants who do the same. Relish in Long Island wine and beer. Unite your love of food and drink with a love of the land.
And, second, do all you can to support the work of the Group for the East End. Us eaters can do a lot. But few of us have the expertise or stamina to lobby local officials, draft laws and raise funds to preserve our potato patches and vineyards and clam beds.
For that, we need the Group. And there is no other group doing that for the East End.
So, even if you don’t like clams, please shell out some clams tonight, bid insanely in tonite’s auction, include the Group in a year-end gift, buy a membership for a neighbor or loved one. Our East End bounty depends on it!