The East End’s food culture stretches beyond the Polish immigrants who settled here to grow the famous Long Island potato, the generations of baymen who made their living on our waters and the relative newcomers who either incorporated agrotainment into their business plans or decided to grow wine.
All along, the African-American subculture was defining its own traditions and foodways, which grew from a shameful part of our nation’s history and the never-ending desire for a better life and providing for one’s family.
In the late ’60s, when the above photo was taken, juke joints and soul food were what drew the African-American community together, says Brenda Simmons, whose father, in the white shirt, was a cook at the Cottage Inn on Springs Fireplace Road in East Hampton; she’s still digging for the exact location.
“I was never allowed to go in there,” she says, but she knew what her father, Noah T. Simmons, known affectionately as Crook, was cooking. It was soul food: collard greens with fatback, sweet potatoes, string beans and the parts of a hog that were more affordable, what one may call the leftovers. “It’s how our grandparents and great-grandparents ate because that’s all there was, the pig’s ears and tails,” says this lifelong Southampton resident who works as the advisor to the village’s mayor. “Back in slave times, they made do.”
Her father also cooked at home, taking full advantage of an extensive home garden and a community garden down the street. Fresh fruits and vegetables were eaten in season and set aside for the winter month as preserves and in a basement freezer that Crook vigilantly monitored. “He was really obsessed with it,” says Simmons. “It was from growing up in the South through hard times.”
As the second oldest of five daughters, Simmons was soon enlisted in meal preparation and recalls a technique for cleaning string beans that minimized waste. “You’d use our thumb and index finger to pluck off the ends,” she says. “And once you learned it, you used it.” But her plucking abilities only went so far. Still seared in her memory is the day she watched her father wring the neck of a chicken, which then ran around the yard, headless, with blood spurting from his neck. “As a six- or seven-year-old girl I was horrified,” she says, but she still ate it. “It was dinner.”
Simmons found the photo of her father after he died at 85 when the family was going through his things. It brought back memories of how hard he worked, which Simmons realized was one reason he was away from home so often. The story also fits into a project she’s been working on for years that will soon become a reality due to a donation from the town and increased fund-raising: an African-American museum, which will open on North Sea Road in Southampton close to the heart of the village. “There will be an exhibit about food,” she says, “and we’re going to have a kitchen as well. It will compare the food we had then with the food we have now.”
Which is one of the things she thinks of when she looks at the picture. But the first thing she thought of was her father’s dedication to his family. He was known to stay late at the Cottage Inn and sometimes not make it home, which she resented as a child. “It wasn’t until after I got older,” she says tearing up, “that I really appreciated and was honored to know my dad did what he did. When I see that picture I think of my dad not only having a good time, but that he was a hard worker. I didn’t see the dad that was never home; I saw a dad that did a lot so he could take care of us.”