Small Potatoes

Written By: Selina  Silecchia

Small Potatoes by Selina Silecchia I grew up in Southampton, an Astoria, NY transplant, my first breath of Island air came from the back of a light blue Thunderbird on the LIE. My father would commute from his job as pharmacist in Genovese Drug Store in Astoria and work day and night setting us up at our new house in the country. I would keep my father awake talking to him from the back seat until I was bleary-eyed. My grandmother always brought hot food that she would hold in trays on her lap, even in the summertime. Our car would have smelled like a New York deli had my father not opened every window available during the two hour long trip. Even though it was only two hours, my grandmother was always afraid we would starve “out east” and so there were tons of grocery bags that came along with us which held sliced cold cuts and always a bag of bagels. As my father fell in and out of consciousness on the long desolate stretch of wilderness marked by yellow and white lines, my job was to keep us all alive and hold a bag of food at my feet. I leaned over to his seat and talked non-stop, sometimes even tapping his shoulder as emphasis in my story just to make sure the car stayed away from the grass and brush which held the road. A salty bagel wrapped in paper soaked in butter would be falling out of my five year old hands as I talked my dad awake on the endless road where no man from Astoria had gone before. At least that’s what my grandmother thought. And so, we would bring the huge bag of bagels; hot buttered, toasted bagels from “HOT BAGELS” in Floral Park because there was nothing to eat out in the country. If I did a good job and we all made it to the country alive I got a treat. It was a pack of Dentyne that was in my grandmother’s purse and it was like gold to me. I would triumph when we made it to Southampton because I could run through the yard with my pack of cinnamon gum and get away from the car, the smell of food, and the fear of death. We settled into the wilderness known as Southampton into a house with a half-done porch with plastic sheeting on the windows that was across the way from “The Indians.” The Shinnecock Nation did not have their name yet, and so being from the city, the area across the street was un-chartered and wild. My mother had no problem going right over into the wilderness the next day. She also had no problem finding friends wherever she went, and so it was not long after that the old man across the way named “Red” was bringing chickens into our back yard which I had to care for the next day. I grew up in the days where on the city streets I played freeze tag and a game that forced you to jump called the Lemon-Twist. If your legs were skinny enough and you were fast you would win by twirling a big plastic lemon around your ankle as many times as you could until you banged it into your jumping leg. I always won. Little did I know, the chickens also liked my long legs, but they would not stop when they ran into them. They would peck at them. They would run after me incessantly. They ran after me every time I went outside because I was their care taker. I hated the chickens because they picked at my legs every time I went outside. I would bring a broom outside with me to chase them away until I could run up the trees to escape them. It was only when we got a proper pen put up for the chickens that I had a break. Then it was only twice a day that I would grab the broom, take their feed and water to them, clean up while they were busy, get the eggs and run like Hell out of their coup. The little chicken coup, a pastoral scene to onlookers; unknown to many as my small version of Hell. Before that I did a different version of running. I would run through the potato fields in Southampton with a brown paper A&P bag in my hands collecting the small potatoes left behind from prominent Southampton farmers. After we were done gleaning the fields we would visit “The Swans” by Agawam pond, feeding McDonalds hot fries to them until my sisters and I ran out of the hot potatoes and they would chase us away. Those were the days. When I entered Westhampton Beach High School, I was on the Track Team. Luckily, I had plenty of sustenance. My mother’s mother was born in Czechoslovakia and then moved to Astoria after that. She had my mother in the 1940’s. So, my mother was raised to be a master of searching for food. She was good at it. Our Southampton life was centered on meeting new people who would have a hand in giving us food in some way. Somehow my mother found strangers who produced something we could eat and we would visit them. One of our regular trips was to a farm in North Sea for fresh eggs. I had given up on the chickens after a rooster from Red was given to us as a gift. The rooster began stalking them. He would break into the coup sending them all over the yard, flying into my head in the process as I would try and retrieve them, broom in hand. I begged my mother to bring the rooster and the chickens back to the reservation. Finally, we did return them. On their return, we picked up a young Welsh Pony and my mother thought the trade was something memorable because it was exactly Thanksgiving Day when we received “Wahoo” our new horse. In today’s thinking it would have looked terrible to be walking across to The Shinnecock Indian Nation with chickens in tow for trade on Thanksgiving Day. In the late 70’s, it was a cool thing to do. You may come back with a horse. Thanks to Red, that Thanksgiving Day I began taking care of a horse instead of the chickens. My new job was to clean the horse barn and if I wanted I could sell the manure at the end of our driveway for 5.00 a bag. And so a few weeks after the great chicken trade, we took a trip to the farm in North Sea for fresh eggs. I didn’t mind the change in events at all because when we got to the farm if I had enough money saved up, I would buy two cellophane wrapped packages of the best chocolate chip cookies ever. The teenager at the farm who made them was named Kathleen and she actually sold these cookies for money! I thought when I was older I would make cookies as well. Maybe I would become famous! Back then, the only famous chocolate-chip cookie maker was named “Amos” and people did not become famous from selling their goods at farmers markets. I thought I would sell mine at the A&P like Amos and make a ton of money! How could you ever make a living selling food at farm stands in the country? Silly. When my grandmother would visit on Sundays she would still bring a bag of bagels, chicken cacciatore, chicken soup and Entenman’s coffee cake. She did not believe the grocery store out here would have what she needed. She did this for most of the 80’s. I have lived most of my life out on The East End and have seen many things come and go in my years as a teacher, chef and broadcaster. A few days ago I was hosting a local radio show telling people they could buy fresh eggs from a drive-through supermarket just outside The Shinnecock Indian Nation. Farmer’s Markets are so big on The East End there is a magazine that tells visitors where to go to get the freshest ingredients and food festivals with celebrities and television shows are always focusing on Long Island’s foodie scene. I mention on the radio that the farmer’s eggs are organic. If he plays his cards right, he could become famous.