Long Island Food is By the People, For the People

If one needed proof of Long Island’s appetite for local food, they’d have to look no further than the North Fork on a stunning autumn afternoon. Sound Avenue is clogged with hundreds of vehicles inching ever so slowly east toward food stands selling kale, cheese, pumpkins, fruit pies and local wine. It’s the kind of traffic pattern usually reserved for the Hamptons. Instead, it’s the main artery to the heart of Long Island’s “locally grown” movement.

Related Content: 9 Top North Fork Producers

“Having moved here from Pittsburgh in February, I was pretty astonished at the bounty on Long Island—particularly on the East End—both in terms of produce and seafood,” said Melissa McCart, a food columnist for Newsday. “It’s so fresh at markets in part because consumers expect it. [I think] it’s related to an increasing awareness of the value of local food, even when it’s more expensive—it’s better for the economy and for residents. And it tastes better.”

Our tastes are evolving. It happened gradually and without fanfare, but between the pizza parlors, delis and bagel joints, an appreciation for locally crafted products has sprouted through the cracks in the asphalt. “Grown on Long Island” is becoming an increasingly important aspectof what we eat and how we live. But even though tracking the evolution of consumer expectations is a tasty armchair exercise for the food-obsessed, any discussion of nutritional trends is fraught with potential heartburn. Hard numbers are tough to come by. Terminology is confusing. Opinions are profoundly personal. Still, there are indications that Long Islanders are nurturing a deeper connection to local food that goes beyond simply knowing its origin.

Colette Burke is a farmer and marketing consultant who has managed food companies in the United States and Great Britain. She said the relationship between food purveyors and consumers has moved beyond transactional. “In an increasingly uncertain world, people are turning to the stability and reassurance provided by being part of a close knit community,” Burke said. “This emotional commitment extends to actively seeking out food produced locally… farmers, growers and artisans who prepare the food and the storekeepers and restaurateurs who sell it.”

Talk to people rooted in the scene and they will tell you that Long Islanders are more informed. They are adventurous, increasingly health conscious, willing to get their hands dirty and embracing the creativity of craftsmen who are shaping the character of our food. From a mid-Island farming renaissance to new craft spirits to a lust for artisanal bread, several trends are shedding light on our quest for food and the relationships that feed us.

Call it the greening of Nassau County. Long Island’s agricultural heritage has slowly migrated from the East End and now there are farming options germinating within western suburbs. Since available land is expensive and scarce, people are looking more creatively at existing plots, hoping to cultivate some productive soil. Historic family farms, like Crossroads Farm at Grossmann’s in Malverne and Restoration Farm in Old Bethpage, have been revived to support community-sponsored agriculture (the hipster fresh CSAs everyone is talking about). Churches and religious orders in Bellmore, Amityville and Brentwood are also stepping in, ploughing large swaths of property to raise food and funds for the hungry.

“People don’t have to go too far to see what farming looks like on Long Island because it’s still happening on the East End,” said Caroline Fanning, head grower at Restoration Farm. “They go out east and pick pumpkins or buy wine, they come back and see an acre parcel here and think, ‘That’s open space—why is it just sod?’”

Fanning said when people join a CSA, which allows them to have a share of crops grown on a particular plot, they get to know the farmer and trust develops, as does a willingness to take culinary risks. “We’ve got a really devoted core of CSA members and they’ll try new things,” Fanning claimed. “I’m doing fennel and rutabaga this season and I have faith my members will try it because I grew it.”

At East Meadow Farm, operated by Cornell Cooperative Extension, there’s a waiting list for the 60 community plots where families can grow their own vegetables. Cornell’s horticulture educator Jennifer Cappello-Ruggiero said a sense of tradition is driving families to roll up their sleeves. “It creates a great family environment…there are parents who remember working with their parents and grandparents in the garden, and they feel that’s going to get lost if they don’t explore that with their kids.”

Cappello-Ruggierio said the opportunity to collaborate with neighbors is also appealing. “It’s about the companionship and the learning that happens in a community garden. If you’re gardening in your own backyard there’s a sense of satisfaction, but sharing that experience with likeminded people is also important.”

Long Island’s rapid pace demands fast food and a wave of quick dining options are demonstrating that fast service can still meet the desire for fresh and healthy. The street-food-inspired menu at Greek Street in Massapequa Park promises “fast fresh Greek food.” Piecraft Pizza Bar in Island Park allows customers to select fresh toppings and create their own masterpieces baked in a 900-degree wood-burning oven in less than three minutes. Freshark Juice Bar & Grill in Rockville Centre allows patrons to customize a healthy 500-calorie meal using locally sourced ingredients, in mere minutes.

“People are getting smarter with their eating habits,” said Peter Kambitsis, Freshark co-founder. “People are also getting busier every year so they’re looking for healthy fast alternatives.” Kambitsis said Freshark’s build your-own-menu model has actually increased counter efficiency and customer satisfaction. “Food isn’t a one size fits all. People want to eat their way.”

The Long island Growers Market sponsors nine farmers markets, with many more occurring weekly in local townships. Farmers markets offer food entrepreneurs the unique opportunity to build a customer base and loyal shoppers are embracing the opportunity to meet producers face-to-face. Think of it as speed dating for locavores.

David Shalam is founder of Heritage Bakers. He sells baked goods made with heirloom grains at markets in Garden City, Hauppauge and Sea Cliff. “Each market has it’s own vibe and identity that is very specific to its area. People like to be part of something that’s special in their neighborhood,” Shalam said. He found the markets also afford the flexibility to experiment with different products and price points, adding “There is nothing better than getting direct feedback and reaction from people when they taste your products.”

Husband and wife team Alicia Valeo and Kevin Breslawski own Crimson and Clove, a company that sells small batch, hand packed natural spices and blends. At farmers markets in Nesconset, Kings Park, Northport and Huntington they learned that market conversation could spice up product development. They designed a new barbeque spice blend based on customer feedback. “It’s a more personal experience than a product just sitting on a shelf in the supermarket,” Valeo said. “People get excited and they come over and say, ‘These are my spice people!’”

Benjamin Franklin once said, “There cannot be good living where there is not good drinking.” Franklin would enjoy the current state of Long Island craft spirits. With land for wine production limited, beverage craftsmen are turning to new spirits that can be brought to market quickly. The adventurous imbiber can choose from potato vodka, gin and pumpkin-flavored cordials at Long Island Spirits in Baiting Hollow; hard cider at Woodside Orchards in Aquebogue; and brandy distilled by Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck. Local craft spirits are showing up on cocktail menus from Montauk to Manhattan. And, backstory sells—local tradition and family history reign supreme.

Joe Cunha saw an opportunity to revive a family business with Twin Stills Moonshine Distillery in Riverhead. His grandfather began as a commercial distiller in Europe in 1926. Cunha decided to create a product that would honor his ancestry and reflect the local region. He told Pulse, “I wanted to represent Long Island. What do you have on Long Island? You have corn. So I thought it would be unique to come out here and do moonshine.” The distillation process takes about a month and the end product comes in varieties like apple pie, strawberry and mixed berry. The steady stream of visitors to the roadside tasting room suggests he’s got a hit.

Despite a widespread fear of carbs, the local baker has staged a comeback. The squishy white variety is out, but artisan bakers are introducing Long Islanders to European style breads.

Like Robert Biancavilla, founder of Duck Island Bread Company in Huntington, who found that “People realize that to have a healthy lifestyle and diet, you have to have a certain amount of carbohydrates. If they’re going to eat carbohydrates, they’re going to eat bread that’s well made and has no preservatives or unnatural ingredients.” Patrons line up at Biancavilla’s shop each Saturday to purchase exquisite baguettes and brioche and enjoy watching the master baker at work in the open kitchen. “When you look at the success of small bakeries, people like the fact that they know the person who’s making the product and that he’s using the best ingredients. They’re paying for the authenticity,” Biancavilla said.

Carissa’s Bread in Amagansett may be the best example of where such authenticity can lead. Owner Carissa Waechter’s popular line of breads—grown, milled and baked locally—shows how collaborations between artisans and agriculture can result in products of distinct local flavor. Waechter used “tons and tons” of flour as a New York City pastry chef, but was intrigued to discover that Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett was attempting to re-introduce wheat growing here. “I came out to the East End and started playing with their wheat and literally it was a wild beast,” she said, describing the flavor of her bread as “very musty, earthy and kind of barnyardy…The taste was a really big thing for me. It wasn’t a cool gimmick I wanted to use. I thought everything just tasted so much better.”

Waechter now partners with four Long Island farms that grow various grains specifically for bread. “It’s a personal challenge to use all this local stuff,” she said. Nevertheless, she also uses lard and duck fat from local farms and sells bread made with beer from Montauk Brewing Company. During pie season, she’ll introduce a variety of pies made with local fruits.

Long Islanders will have more opportunities to meet the folks who feed them. The recently-opened Long Island Welcome Center on the Long Island Expressway in Dix Hills includes a Taste NY retail store, offering a selection of locally sourced food and beverages.

Cornell Cooperative Extension will operate the new store and feature established providers from Suffolk as well as emerging Nassau farmers and food artisans. Think of Taste NY as base camp for locavore newbies. Perhaps it all comes down to a basic truth: our desire to break bread together, raise a glass and join a communal table. It’s a very human need that is finding its expression in Long Island’s local food movement.