When a romantic notion of a place becomes your home.
All the people I know dream about Tuscany, read about Tuscany and think about buying a villa in Tuscany, thereby changing or at least improving their life. (And maybe have a movie made about their experience as well.) I don’t know many people who have decided that their life could be altered for the better by pulling up stakes and moving to Long Island. But when I got downsized from my job as a magazine editor (more on that later) this was exactly what I decided to do.
By Long Island, I don’t mean one of the commuter towns where Billy Joel grew up, but one particular part of the island’s easternmost edge. As its natives have long realized, and I am just learning—as I bike to the wineries, volunteer at the Southold Historical Society and frequent the foodie nexus of Mattituck known as Love Lane—the North Fork is a world apart from the rest of Long Island, as much as the South Fork (aka the Hamptons) is a courtesy extension of New York.
The North Fork to me is more like a little piece of Ohio that broke free of the Midwest and ended up anchored to the tip of Long Island. In fact, when I first visited the North Fork a few years ago, it felt like I’d come home to Ohio—where I was (mostly) brought up. The flat fields, the grazing horses and cows, were a comforting echo of my childhood landscape—and an especially welcome reminder of another sort of life after 20 years in New York City and its suburbs. But the North Fork was more than a near-duplicate of my Midwestern childhood, it was more like my youthful geography perfected. There weren’t only fields of crops and animals, but three great bodies of water all around: the Long Island Sound, the Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. And then, of course, there were the vineyards.
My first visit to the North Fork took place on account of those vineyards. It was almost three years ago, when I was the executive wine editor of Food & Wine. I’d decided to write a column about what I’d grandly characterized as “the coming of age” of Long Island wines, based on a handful of bottles that I’d tasted in my Manhattan office. (I still write that column, “Wine Matters,” for Food & Wine.) In fact, the first vines were planted on Long Island just over three decades ago. First there was just a trickle of interest as a few acres were planted; this later swelled into a steady stream as new talent and money arrived, albeit not always hand in hand. Potato fields were plowed under and chardonnay, merlot and cabernet were planted, along with a few lesser-known varietals as well.
On that first visit, I spent nearly a week exploring the region and tasting its wines, and I came away with the beginnings of a few prized friendships, including Louisa Hargrave (one-half of the pioneering couple that envisioned Bordeaux-style wines from Long Island in 1973) and the warm and wonderful Massoud family of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. I also reconnected with a couple whose wedding I had attended in 1997, but with whom I’d fallen out of touch: Eberhard Mueller and Paulette Satur, proprietors of Satur Farms.
By week’s end, I’d acquired a hopelessly idealized, romanticized notion of the place (see: Tuscany) and I was determined to incorporate the North Fork into my life. It had everything that I wanted: beautiful landscape (vineyards! horses!), access to water and, of course, good food and wine. By the number of new arrivals alone, alongside the few like-minded fifth-generation native North Forkers, I knew that my feelings were far from unique. Other “immigrants” had clearly felt the same way that I did, and in many cases had given up substantial careers in exchange: Eberhard had given up his four-star chef status for farming; Charles Massoud had surrendered the steady paycheck of an IBM executive for a vintner’s life; and Mike Osinski left banking for a life of oystering in the Bay. They had all forged new lives and second acts that turned out, in many ways, to be bigger and more rewarding than their first. And it wasn’t just because they founded wineries or farms, but because they actually became part of a community. Their work and their lives were essential to many more people than their immediate family or themselves. Not that this couldn’t happen in New York City. Maybe in Brooklyn. But much less likely on Wall Street or Park Avenue. When the economy changed and my fortunes changed with it (after 12 great years at Food & Wine, I was among those who were downsized), I decided to start looking for a house to rent or to buy.
When I told my friends in New York about my plans, their collective reaction was skeptical, at best. Wouldn’t I miss the tastings, the dinner parties, the art galleries, the museums, my busy social life? It was true that I would, but that didn’t change things, and besides no New Yorkers ever go to as many museums as they feel like they should. One friend asked, “Are you going as far away as—Montauk?” As if that town were the furthest outpost of which she could conceive. (It’s 120 miles due east of Midtown.) But once the collective shock subsided, they began to express an entirely different set of feelings, a mix of envy and awe. More than one friend told me that she wished she’d done the same thing, but practical considerations like families and jobs held them back. Neither was a problem for me, I was a divorced freelance writer, after all.
Louisa recommended I contact Gayle Mariner Smith, a highly successful real estate saleswoman and an incurable optimist; every house that we looked at, from Aquebogue to Greenport, was just a few coats of paint shy or a few sheets of paneling short of greatness. I just saw moldy carpet, rotting handrails and dark tiny spaces: immediate teardowns. Apparently these were the hallmarks of the properties that I could afford. Just when I was beginning to despair (Isn’t that the way that all happy endings start?), Gayle said she had found the perfect house. She was right, of course. It was a cute little farmhouse, nicely renovated, with an open view across fields and near a beautiful beach. It was also close to Croteaux Vineyards and just down the road from three other wineries—a clear sign, I thought. In short, it was exactly as I imagined my life in the North Fork should be like. I signed a contract right away.
I’d found a North Forkbased mover named Jose (through Gayle, of course) whose deadpan sense of humor proved the perfect counterbalance to my nervous state. “Are you sure it’s big enough for all of my furniture?” I asked, several times. “If not, we’ll probably have to leave a bunch of your stuff behind,” Jose replied. I began to explore local restaurants and shops. I found a few farm stands that I liked in nearby Peconic and Southold (KK’s, the Organic Farm in Southold, in particular), though mostly I shopped at the ones that I could reach easily on my bike, a basic upright with only a few speeds. (My closest neighbor, Joan, prefaces all of her conversations, “When I saw you out riding your bike ” when she’s talking with me.) Sometimes I’d ride as far as Eric’s on Route 48 for a sandwich (pulled pork), though less often when it really began to get cold. I rode more often to Wayside Market to buy meat (particularly sausage) and the Blue Duck Bakery (any, and all, of their breads) as well as Southold Fish Market, whose owner, Charlie, is a friend of Eberhard’s. I’ve gotten some very nice fish from Charlie, and sometimes he’s around to do the actual filleting, though he seems to spend as much time out hunting as he does on his boat.
I began patronizing the Village Cheese Shop in Mattituck, albeit by car, not just because it has great cheese (their wonderfully nutty Parmesan is my particular favorite); of course, everyone else goes there as well. It’s quite near Amano, Tom Schaudel’s terrific Italian joint and near Mint, my favorite retail clothing store, which has Manhattan style and Brooklyn prices. It’s next door to my favorite restaurant, Love Lane Kitchen where the combination is right: the prices are reasonable, the menu appealing, the wines are local, and the manager, Carolyn Iannone, has a high-wattage smile for everyone. (I can think of a dozen Manhattan restaurants whose business would be instantly improved just by hiring Carolyn to stand by their door.)
I’ve also made several new friends just by eating at Love Lane Kitchen. In fact, I’ve made several new friends quite easily. That seems to be the way that my life on the North Fork has unfolded so far: one act of kindness and generosity has followed another. Friends have held dinner parties to introduce me to their friends, who in turn have had dinners to introduce me to theirs. Random encounters in restaurants and shops have led to lunch invitations, and my new neighbors sometimes even stop by for a visit—I don’t think that ever happened when I was living in New York—or even suburbia. Nobody just drops by.
I’m determined to respond accordingly, and not just by hosting dinner parties of my own but by doing something for the community at large which has already made me feel so much at home. I’ve started by volunteering at the Southold Historical Society, in their archives, where I’ve learned about old local farming families like the Wickhams, and in the Society’s resale shop called the Treasure Exchange, where the volunteers seem to do a lot of shopping themselves (there’s a lot of great old china for sale at good prices). I’ve also joined the Southold Sunshine Society, which helps out elderly locals by visiting and sending flowers and cards.
In the meantime, my North Fork friends predict that this rather giddy state cannot last, especially through the long winter months (when I truly understand what it means to live in a “marginal” climate for wine). I know that my impression is rather starry-eyed, that I’m sure to experience some less-than-perfect times. I already miss many things about Manhattan (the restaurants, the food stores and my friends, not to mention all the wine shops and wine bars). But I’ll take a walk on the beach or a ride on my bike and explore a bit more of this place that I still don’t really know, yet feels like home.
Lettie Teague is the contributing wine editor and columnist at Food & Wine, and the author of Educating Peter. She writes a North Fork-centric blog, forklife.wordpress.com, from her new home in Southold.