An interview with Ketchum’s own Tom Barritt, Managing Director of the Communications Training Network and author of Long Island Food: A History From Family Farms & Oysters to Craft Spirits. Published by History Press, the book is part of their series, American Palate, which seeks out hometown writers to chronicle their local food culture.
Tom Barritt was not setting out to write an academic history of the food of Long Island, New York. Rather, the journey was a suburban boy’s search for his hometown food culture. Long Island Food provides a fascinating account of one of the nation’s most diverse, and perhaps least understood culinary regions. Tom hopes that his stories of local pioneers and modern day food artisans will offer a unique, single narrative of Long Island’s culinary past, present and future.
Tom grew up in the 1960’s on meatloaf and TV dinners, not realizing the edible delights hiding just off the Long Island Expressway. While his friends raved about niche areas like Napa and the Hudson Valley, Tom explored close to home and after many weekends researching and talking to locals, he began to discover the deep history of the region and learned that the food culture of today is very much rooted in the past. Throughout, he found that at the heart of Long Island food were stories about people.
“If you just write about ingredients, you’ll find something is missing. You need the personal element,” Tom said. “Food tells us a lot about traditions, but there is always a person at the heart of a food story bringing it all together.”
Exploring the Agricultural and Seafood Bounty
Farming and seafood were two major sources of food that sustained Native Americans and European settlers and still remain an integral part of Long Island’s food culture today. Tom focused on stories of individuals advancing Long Island’s food traditions in new ways. The Terry family has cultivated land on Orient Point at the tip of Long Island’s North Fork since the 1600s. But, in recent years, they found that their business model of wholesale produce was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. They decided to take their produce directly to the public and started a network of more than 15 farmers markets on Long Island, none of which had existed before. The Terry family changed the way Long Islanders shop for produce and revitalized their historic family farm.
Tom also investigated the Long Island oyster industry which harkens back to 1900 and was one of the most prominent oyster centers in the world. As is often seen in the fishing industry, the waters were overfished and the supply depleted. The industry went through significant decline. The Blue Island Oyster Company is an example of a business that is revitalizing oyster production in the Great South Bay.
Wine and Spirits
It’s only in the past couple of decades that Long Island has become known for fine wines. While a new sector for the region – now represented by dozens of wineries – it is built on Long Island’s early family farming foundations. Long Island’s very first winery was started 40 years ago by a couple interested in cultivating European-style grapes. Hargrave Vineyards was simply a farm supporting a single family, started on the site of an old potato field. The family had no idea their personal passion for wine would pave the way for the burgeoning wine industry that exists today. Now, diverse vintners and distillers have flocked to the region. There is a sparkling wine house on the East End. The company, Long Island Spirits distills vodka from the iconic Long Island potato and also produces Rough Rider Bourbon, a local product named in honor of Long Island resident, Teddy Roosevelt.
Tom said Long Island’s modern artisans are advancing the food history of the region through their passion and enthusiasm. “There is a real personal imprint food artisans are putting on their product today that reflects where Long Island has been in the past but also where it may go in the future.”
Long Island Food was published by History Press and is on sale on September 14, 2015. It is part of their series, American Palate, which seeks locals to write about native food culture. Tom was discovered by the publishing company through his blog, Culinary Types. Culinary Types is a food blog Tom started nine years ago. He will be speaking about Long Island food at local venues throughout autumn, including a speaking event at the Suffolk County Historical Society, on October 24.