Kismet and the Twin Forks

Written By: Nancy  Vallarella

The “Twin Forks” refers to the two east ends of Long Island. It is a moniker whose credit is as mysterious as the inspiration for the Mona Lisa’s smile.  The geographic reference is obvious, but recognition for the nickname remains unknown. Documentation of the name in print has been tracked to September, 1880 in an issue of South Side Signal newspaper from Babylon according to Gina Piastuck, Department Head of the Long Island Collection, East Hampton Library. That is where the birth trail ends.

Walt Whitman was born in 1819. He referred to his birthplace as a “fish-shaped Paumanok”.  Paumanok is a Native American name for Long Island. Geographically, Long Island in its entirety resembles a fish. The “Twin Forks” are the tail.

We may never know the origin of the Twin Forks moniker, but it has become embedded and lives in the souls of many.  Many are drawn to the beauty and bounty of the terrain. Many have sipped the culture and have found a soothing elixir.

The lure of the Twin Forks first spoke to me as a child.  It was the first time a destination’s subliminal cues influenced my destiny. The smells of my childhood growing up in Queens, the western “head of the fish”, were distinctly different from those experienced traveling to the east end of Long Island. Open windows provided the only air conditioning in our 1960’s Dodge land yacht. The smell of sweltering blacktop and exhaust gave way to sun-sweetened air rich with corn stalks that had just begun to slow bake in the sunshine. The sound of our final destination was that of fat white wall tires crushing gravel, followed by the sight of a large white sign with red uppercase letters, O S C A R ’ S.

Oscar’s Fishing Rentals in Hampton Bays offered small baby blue dinghies with red outboard motors and bait. By the time our gear was loaded on board, there was barely room for my dad and me. I can still feel the fishing pole quivering in my small hands. I can see the proud look on my father’s face. I still can’t believe I managed to hang onto the pole while reeling in my first summer flounder.

We returned home to Queens in the Dodge land yacht with a trunk full of summer flounder the size of doormats.  We spent the following hours filleting, cleaning, bagging, and sharing.  The bounty was distributed to neighbors, friends and relatives. The byproducts of the cleaned fish; heads, tails, skins, and innards were buried in our small garden. In the dark of the night, I could still feel the rocking of the boat on the water and smell the ocean air that lingered in my hair. As I dozed off to sleep, I could hear a feline serenade. The neighborhood cats gathered to croon for the fish parts buried beneath their paws.

Nearly a half century later, that moment in time remains a part of me.  This adventure sparked my culinary passion, awakened a yearning to nurture and taught me how food brings people together.  A spell was cast upon me. Others have fallen under it too.

John Ross worked as a chef on the South Fork in East Hampton while attending the Cornell Hotel School in 1970 – 71. Unaware that another tine of the Twin Forks existed, he admits by accident or fate, he purchased a restaurant in Southold in 1973. Chef Ross has lived and cooked on the North Fork ever since.  “I am so happy that I landed in a place that was a food paradise” confides Chef Ross in a recent email to me.

While visiting relatives in Cutchogue, Alex and Louisa Hargrave met John Wickham. They bought an old potato farm and in 1973 planted the first modern vineyard on Long Island. That vineyard was 17 acres. Now, in 2016, the Twin Forks support over 3,000 acres of commercial vineyards.

Through the years of visiting the Twin Forks, the takeaway has always been satiety.  Even during the 1980’s trend of Nouvelle cuisine, drinking in the culture of historic towns like Sag Harbor made up for what lacked on the plate. Late 1990’s family vacations to Montauk are revered with recollections of my children rolling out of bed and onto the soft sand of an Atlantic Ocean beach.  Sibling squabbles over sweet, fried bay scallops and sandy bathroom floors were quickly forgiven under the influence of this South Fork, seafaring town.  My children have revisited Montauk on their own as young adults, bringing along my grandson.

The Twin Forks inspire a state of satisfaction that is contagious. This century, I have and know I will continue to return to the Twin Forks to work, visit and celebrate with colleagues, friends, and family. Participating in events with like minds, for worthy causes, in beautiful settings hardly seems like work. Annual events like the Hayground School’s Chef Dinner, Dan’s East End Harvest, and the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs and Champagne where food, drink and culture are shared, make for a vast opportunity to get exposed to the Twin Forks ethos year after year. Celebrations at historic mansions like Jamesport Manor Inn and Jedediah Hawkins Inn, along with restaurant views with sunsets add a new dimension to the ambiance that is addicting.

Like his mom, my grandson is running along the shores of Atlantic beaches. Seeing him pick corn, lavender, and pumpkins from the same fields that are the scent of my childhood, make me think. Will he remember the look of pride on his mother’s face? Will he remember the smells, sounds, and tastes? Will the Twin Forks influence his destiny?  Time will tell. For now, I think we will just plan to go fishing.