Thinking about the differences between travel and place writing, through my hometown.
Ever since it became public knowledge that Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, has a “rustic escape” in Mastic, I’ve been wondering what other changes are coming to the south shore far from the Hamptons and Montauk. Her 40-acre estate is in a town whose name, for those from the area, evokes not glamour and peace but a stretch of William-Floyd Parkway that has just about every fast-food option known to man. It’s the gateway to Smith Point Beach, which has a large memorial to the fallen TWA Flight 800, which crashed off the shore in 1996. It is absolutely strange to me that there are illustrious houses here of the sort that Wintour would purchase. These were not visible to me in my youth.
There are a few other “cool” people in the area now. (The only one I’ve known about for a long time has been Isabella Rossellini, who now has a farm and bed and breakfast in Brookhaven; she went to my gym years ago and my dad once picked her up for a Lyft ride to Manhattan.) While Bellport has always been quite stratified between wealthy and not, now the food writer and cookbook author Andy Baraghani of Bon Appétit Test Kitchen fame is being quite public from a house in the area. There was a photo shoot for T and a Grub Street Diet that had me wondering where on earth there could be good Thai food (a friend who still lives in Medford clued me in).
What could it mean for my hometown, I’ve wondered? Patchogue sits right on the south shore of Long Island, about 45 minutes east of JFK on a good day and 45 minutes west of Southampton without traffic. It’s a town that’s gone through many changes but even though it’s now a nightlife destination for local folks, it’s not by any stretch a tony place—but I thought that about Mastic. Perhaps even Patchogue has been hiding something from me.
Tomorrow I start teaching Culinary Tourism at Boston University’s masters of gastronomy (if I’ve repeated this often, it’s not because I’m bragging; it’s because people keep asking me when I mention teaching). I’ll be publishing abridged lectures and reading lists in this newsletter throughout the semester, and one of the later classes is on the differences between travel and place writing—how do we approach a place we know deeply differently than we approach somewhere new? How do we convey a place we know deeply differently than we convey a new-to-us place? What does your hometown Google Maps recommendations list look like versus the one you share for a city where you’ve spent a couple of vacations?
When people ask me—and they’ve asked, oddly—where to eat in Patchogue, I’m always at a bit of a loss. It’s different with New York City: There, I have to know precisely what you want, which neighborhood you’ll be staying in, what your budget is. This is different from San Juan, where I have a list at the ready; I’ve experienced San Juan as both a travel destination and the place I live. The latter is very different, but I understand what most people want from the former. New York City is a place where now, I go to where I want to get precisely what I want, and I wouldn’t make a general list for anyone.
Patchogue? For pizza, I have to explain the differences between Gino’s and Rocco’s and DelFiore, and tell you the reasons I’ve always preferred what is in this context the hoity-toity DelFiore, always to arguments from the rest of my family, who wanted the more traditional Rocco’s. DelFiore, though, has the best garlic knots and Balsamic dressing I’ve ever eaten; I used to live for the Friday calamari slice, one of those Lenten Catholic holdover dishes pizzerias tend to have.
For oysters, it’s Catch, where I get a martini that is never really very good, but I’m attached to it for what it represents to me, which is sitting with my mom and sister having a laugh. I like Great South Bar a lot, which is a newer place opened by a few people not much younger than me, but most of the time, my husband and I go to Sayville for South Shore Dive, where they make good martinis and the playlist is always excellent—it’s bigger, more relaxed, and has a menu of bar food. Now for coffee, I’m so excited that Southdown has arrived to serve proper espresso and sell me the Ginger Bombs from juice-maker LoveGrace that I’ve been obsessed with since 2012.
Everything in Patchogue is for me hard to explain without a big story, without a novel’s worth of context and history. It reminds me that it’s easier, though perhaps sometimes necessary, to write the simple story, curate a list, make easy recommendations, and not tell the whole truth of a place.
In this age of culinary capital, where you’re only as good as the experience someone had at the place you told them to go, stories matter but aren’t as accessible. We have little tolerance beyond knowing the signifiers of a place. If you ever find yourself in Mastic or Bellport, you might look at it with very different eyes from me, because you know what’s not always immediately visible to locals, which is that fancy people have chosen to live there.
If you ever come to Patchogue, you won’t see anything that I see, having spent 23 years of my life living there—having it be the answer, always, to where I’m from. The work is in finding a balance, a balance that reveals some truth while leaving stories to be told. I can’t tell you about Patchogue unless you have all day.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be about my newfound appreciation for leeks. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing! But there’s stuff in the works.
I just got and started Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, which is also perfect reading for my class.
Since we spent a long weekend in New York to avoid the San Sebastián festival in Old San Juan—during which thousands descended upon our neighborhood, which would’ve caused us a lot of fucking stress…—I didn’t really cook. I just ate. But I hope everyone had a good time at SanSe… and that we don’t arrive home to too much garbage on our balcony.
I was in a conversation with someone yesterday who mentioned that the wants and desires of people going out now was complicated by COVID-19, especially during the stay at home orders. She was saying that she has had to reorient her priorities because some of the things, places, events that were important prior to the pandemic have changed. She talked about needing to get to know herself again. I wonder if that is something that could flavor a part of some of the discourse in your upcoming course. I think the idea of home and hometowns changed a little as well in the past three years.
I resonated with this even though my hometown IS New York City. People ask me for recommendations even though I only lived there for two years as an adult, and only spent significant time in a few neighborhoods. I remember visiting New York in my early 20s when I was living in Boston and going to a play with 3 friends who'd moved to NYC after college. Someone proposed going to a bar when the play ended and they all asked me where to go though I'd never really lived in the city over the age of 21. My NYC recommendations are mostly things I did for cheap or free as a 16 year old in the aughts, and a few places I picked up living there 2018-2020, and most of those places have closed or changed.