An actor who hungers for information.
It was supposed to be something akin to Fishing with John, the obscure angling series that featured Jim Jarmusch, Matt Dillon and Dennis Hopper. But time was short, and cranking the outboard for a couple of hours of porgie spotting seemed excessive. After all, the meeting was not just about how Alec Baldwin eats. It was a chance to get a first-hand report about the oil-stained Gulf from marine conservationist Carl Safina, one of our foremost experts on eating from the ocean, who had recently driven a boat into waters patrolled by British Petroleum and the Coast Guard.
So, over a table adorned with a cornucopia gathered from nearby at Safina’s Lazy Point home built of driftwood, the grilling—questionwise, not of food—began.
Baldwin, whose Playbill Bio lists People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Radiation and Public Health Project, began rapid-fire questions about the BP disaster: “So a boom literally absorbs the oil?”
“It can block it or absorb it,” Safina explained. “But that works on the principle that oil floats. And they’re deploying dispersants, which dissolve oil so it doesn’t float.”
Breaking a petite tapered baguette fresh from Carissa Waechter at the Amagansett Farmers Market, Baldwin asked why Gulf residents weren’t “apoplectic.” They are, Safina replied, but the payouts—to fishermen, to oil industry employees, to tourism operators—are calibrated to “to keep a lid on the explosive rage.”
Baldwin’s serious about food (a long-time restaurateur friend says he doesn’t do anything “halfway”), and clearly that’s due in part to his childhood here. In a recent East Hampton Star interview, he reminisced about his Massepequa upbringing. “My father would tread for clams,” he recalled. “When he found one he would say, right foot’ or left foot,’ and we would dive down and get the clam. He would cut the clams up with big art scissors and make chowder. It gets into your blood.”
Baldwin’s fondness for the Great South Bay endures. “Do you know any good clamming spots there?” he asked Safina. “I know of one west of the Robert Moses Bridge in Bay Shore.”
Baldwin’s appetite for information is voracious. He was impressed that Safina has caught striped bass and bluefish from the East River and fascinated to learn that squid, including the millions of tons caught by the Montauk fleet, is among the most abundant and affordable seafood choices. His questions for Safina included “What’s your opinion of the lobster ban?” (Safina: “A ban seems draconian.”); Why had the DEC prevented Marie’s Fish Farm from releasing flounder they’d grown (Safina said he didn’t know the circumstances); and “What’s the good news?” (“Striped bass is the best managed recovery of a fish in the world,” replied Safina, crediting rules “designed around letting females breed before you keep them.”)
Together they reminisced about the Long Island seafood of their youths. “Flounder. Flounder. Flounder,” Baldwin sang out, pushing back from the table. Safina nodded. (Both in their early 50s, it turns out Baldwin knew some football players that Safina went to high school with.) Safina recalled the tuna gold rush that used to befall Long Island in September and October, when schools of Bluefin tuna swam within a mile or two of Montauk and that rare red flesh showed up at sushi parties of those in the know. (They made plans to go fishing. “How big is your boat?” Baldwin asked.)
But both men have friends who have been crippled by mercury poisoning from sushi—nearly all the mercury in our seafood comes from our coal habit, by the way—and the conversation turned to what not to eat. Safina avoids seafood caught on longlines—those indiscriminate, endless baited lures that are a particularly destructive way to fish. “No tuna, no salmon, the bigger fish and farmed fish.” Instead he favors bonito, mackerel, octopus, shellfish and squid.
“I haven’t eaten beef since 1991,” said Baldwin, who recently helped promote a fund-raiser in Sag Harbor for the vegetarian Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine, and who will dine at Quail Hill Farm’s annual At the Common Table meal. “I have no appetite for pork or beef at all. I eat fish and eggs. I love fish, but I have been mindful of information I have gotten,” he nodded at Safina. “I eat less than I used to. The bigger the fish, the less you want to eat.” (Safina agreed and plugged Blue Ocean Institute’s just-released sustainable fish iPhone app.)
“About 10 years ago, I pitched, with my friend Mark Mori, a show to PBS and Discovery, a series on the history of food,” Baldwin said. “The politics of what’s on the shelves. School lunches. Subsidization of beef. Chemical farming. This country produces enough food to feed 300 million people absent the commitment of distribution.” He quoted the closing scene from Three Days of Condor when Cliff Robertson feeds quixotic Robert Redford a dose of Malthusian dire. (“Today it’s oil, right? In 10 or 15 years, food, plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now what do you think the people are going to want us to do then?”)
Suddenly someone remembered the two dozen Gardiners Bay clams in the fridge. Baldwin fearlessly plunged into the task of prying a few open, albeit unsure about where to enter the mollusk. “It’s been a long time,” he said, his liquid diction tinged with an Island accent. (“Howaya,” he said when he first met Safina.) After a short refresher course (“There’s no stabbing. With the clam in your palm, use your closing fingers of the same hand to push the entire length of the blade between the clamshell’s lips,” Safina instructed), Baldwin unlocked a dozen in short order. The clams were excellent, if a little big for eating raw.
And, so, under the midday sun, with sweat pouring down our brows, interrogator become interogee, and Baldwin really started to talk about food. “The best way to describe my relationship with local food is to jump-cut to a restaurant in Montecito in December,” he said, invoking the referential currency of 30 Rock. “The waiter was talking about a special on lobster, and I said, Really, you don’t understand. I live in East Hampton and I eat about 800 lobster rolls over a four-month season.'”
But intensely seasonal eating, he noted, can be much less complicated than eating on the other side of the Shinnecock Canal. “I’ll wake up and eat a whole quarter of a watermelon for breakfast.” Baldwin relishes the Jersey State Silver Queen corn that shows up in New York City in early summer, and the Long Island ears that follow. “You wait until September because it gets better the later it is. Don’t you agree? I’m a corn-iac.”
When he’s not home eating melon or corn, he has sampled an impressive list of well-known and off-the-beaten path eateries (from fish shacks to farm stands). Mary’s Marvelous is one of his regular Amagansett joints. “I probably spent a million on eggs before Estia’s closed,” he said, referring to the bygone Main Street space, whose talented cook, Ruben Bravo, resurfaced a few doors down at the new Latin place D’Canela, which Baldwin also frequents. In East Hampton, he favors Cittanuova and Nick & Toni’s (which catered his 1993 wedding). In Sag Harbor, he likes Sen and the American Hotel. “My favorite place to hit out here is Bostwick’s,” he said, “because my search for a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder is never ending.” One local place he hasn’t tried—the pan-Asian named “Show Win” that replaced Mt. Fuji: “I’m not sure what to make of the name. It sounds like the guy won big at the track.”
“When I’m in the city I’m working. Regardless of whether I’m sitting down to an eggplant Parmesan hero on 62nd and 1st, or Settomezzo for dinner, it’s all about what time I have. Eating becomes an impediment to working. It slows you. You can’t eat a big meal and then do a show.”
But there’s plenty of room for coffee. He’s a fan of Oren’s Daily Roast, and says he almost bought an apartment so he could live next to 71 Irving Place. He spoke fondly of Café Luxembourg and has been known to order the garden omelet at Sarabeth’s. Across the park, he often sates himself at Via Quadronno. “Uhh,” he said, casting his blue eyes skyward in ecstasy. “The arugula with carpaccio tuna.” “When des Artistes burned down I didn’t ask about the staff or cooks who lost their jobs. I said, God, no more praline ice cream cake.’ It was the best dessert in Manhattan.”
(Another bygone cake he mourns is the sticky toffee date creation hat now East Hampton Star food editor Laura Donnelly baked at what Baldwin called the “old Laundry,” meaning the one on Race Lane that is now Race Lane Restaurant, not the Montauk Highway incarnation of the Laundry that went belly-up recently). Much of his eating happens at SilverCup Studios in Long Island City. “On the set, they feed us breakfast and lunch. Some meals are very ambitious. Sometimes, the whole crew will say, Wow, filet mignon for lunch!’ Other times it’s, Tacos. Oh gosh.'” The crew feeds constantly because they are on their feet all day.
There’s coffee up the ying yang.”
Also on the set is a chef named Angel that Baldwin speaks of fondly. “She’s an Italian-American from Staten Island. She bakes trays of chicken Marsala, baskets of Italian cookies. I have to avoid Angel at all costs.”
Except when she makes eggplant Parmesan heroes, perhaps Baldwin’s death-row choice. (And perhaps fodder for the foodfocused “Sandwich Day” spoof on 30 Rock featuring ambrosial Italian sandwiches from a shop in Brooklyn. “No one knows what it’s called, or where it is. It’s a teamster’s secret.”) (Note: Another favored Baldwin eggplant Parm hero source is Brother’s Pizza near the Jitney stop in Flushing, westbound Exit 25 on the L.I.E.) But his eating habits continue to evolve. “When you get older, you become aware of a kind of eating you can’t do,” he said. “The bread and the butter, the olives and the zucchini chips, and then dinner and then tartufo. You know the meal I’m referring to,” he said with an insider’s wink to the North Main Street establishment that has fed him for more than 20 years. “Thousands of times, I’ve ordered and ordered, I think because I wanted to please the staff. When all I wanted was a bowl of soup.”
Still, some occasions call for celebrating. Like, the witching hour meal the next time he hosts Saturday Night Live. “Then we go to Nobu 57 and be noisy.”
But at that moment, we were all quiet and happy, full of clams, strolling down Shore Road and looking toward Promised Land. Safina described a fishing trip from last fall, and Baldwin was moved to speak almost in haiku. “When you go out on a boat. And catch fish and eat it. That’s awesome,” he said.
Before getting into his car, Baldwin had another question. It concerned that ubiquitous farmed sea bass from the Mediterranean;
Baldwin was considering penning a send up for the New Yorker (“How many times have you heard, ‘Well, we have a very nice branzino tonight’?”)
Safina could explain how it was raised, but he’s never eaten it. “That’s perfect,” Baldwin said with a guffaw and pat on the shoulder. “What do you think of branzino?’ I asked the oceanographer. I’ve never had it.'”
Brian Halweil is the editor of Edible East End and will remember those clams fondly.