Remembrances of a Field Trip to the East End

Written By: Stephanie Gress

It seems so long ago now that my third-grade teacher Catherine Lawrence took our class of twenty-one students from St. James Elementary school on a field trip to the cauliflower auctions. Traveling east on a big yellow bus, I watched the landscape change from the sprawling suburban developments of central Suffolk County to acres upon acres of fields, neatly planted and plowed, abundant with potatoes, corn, cauliflower, tomatoes, melons, squash, and pumpkins. I remember sitting in bleacher-style seating and that we were somewhere in Riverhead, maybe the fairgrounds. The fragrant, fresh heads of cauliflower overwhelmed the air in the auction tent where men were talking, laughing, and smoking cigarettes. “There may be some bad language,” our teacher cautioned, as we sat among the supermarket buyers who were waiting to bid on truckloads of produce. We felt the excitement as the rattle of the auctioneer began, followed by puzzling hand gestures, and finally the muffled swearwords of those who were outbid. At one time, the North Fork of Long Island produced nearly one-third of the nation’s cauliflower that was shipped west on Long Island Railroad freight cars. That day we learned two important things about the East End and its farmers – we learned how hard they work to feed us and how their vegetables arrive on our tables. But this part of our journey was just the beginning of our education about the natural resources that the East End has to offer.

Mrs. Lawrence, a tall, slender, smartly-dressed woman and a talented educator introduced us to the stories behind the products for which Long Island is most famous. Not limiting us to the confines of the classroom, she next arranged for us to visit an oyster factory out in Greenport. It was a drafty space with a large, noisy conveyor belt that carried the oysters up from the boats to where they would be rapidly shucked by skillful workers. We toured the facility, met the people who worked there, and learned how oysters were harvested and processed for the consumer. A man with a weather-worn face and the stereotypical look of a coastal fisherman including the scruffy gray whiskers and a cap was introduced to us as “Oyster Bill” (or maybe “Oyster Pete”) and he acted as host, patiently answering our naïve third-grade questions. We learned that there were over a dozen oyster processing plants in Greenport alone at one point, and that the vast majority of our population lives far away from the shore relying upon such plants to provide them with quality products from the sea. Where I lived was just a short walk to Stony Brook Harbor, so I was accustomed to digging up my own clams, mussels, or an occasional oyster. Some of my fondest memories of childhood include going clamming with my Father and then watching him open dozens of fist-sized Quahogs for my Mother’s famous Manhattan chowder. It was the late 1960s and shellfish was plentiful – if you walked on any Long Island beach, you were sure to be squirted by a steamer clam. How lucky I was to grow up on Long Island!

The final leg of our East End journey took us to a poultry farm alongside Moriches Bay that raised Long Island ducks. This industry was at its peak in the 1960s, producing millions of the delicious birds. Now there are just a few farms remaining due to the impact on the local waterways from the volume of waste. I remember the noisy ducks, busily waddling around in large, penned-in areas surrounded by fencing. They were full, and fluffy, and white, not brown like the ones seen in the local ponds. We learned that they were Pekin Ducks, brought to the Island from China to breed for its tenderness and flavor. Long Island duck was, and is, considered to be a delicacy – found on menus at the best French Restaurants – or prepared a l’orange by Master Chef Julia Child during one of her televised cooking shows. To be honest, the thought of eating duck was initially met with skepticism by most of our third grade class, myself included.

Perhaps our reluctance to try foods that were unfamiliar to us inspired the conclusion of our lesson about the products from the East End. Mrs. Lawrence thought it would be nice to prepare a feast back at the elementary school featuring crispy, roasted Long Island duck, potatoes, and freshly steamed cauliflower. So one evening we invited our parents and served them dinner wearing our tall, white chef hats. And yes, we ate duck and cauliflower, and it was delicious! I did not know that Mrs. Lawrence had contacted the Smithtown newspapers about our event and much to my surprise, a picture of me in my chef hat appeared in the local papers the next week. I still have the old, yellowed news clipping among my treasured mementos.

The retelling of these experiences from the perspective of my third-grade self took a great deal of introspection, and I came to realize that the passing of the years has erased many details of these outings. As for the impressions of the East End that remain with me, I consider them to be among the most precious gifts I have ever received and for this I thank you Mrs. Lawrence.