Edible Long Island
In this half-century period, the Long Island Rail Road stretched across the heart of the island creating new communities and peopling them with immigrants, the influx of Yankee entrepreneurs and intellectuals transformed Brooklyn from a tiny Dutch-speaking village to one of the new nation's major centers of commerce, and a fleet of more than seventy whaling ships operated out of Cold Spring and Sag harbors. Lighthouses, windmills, and mill ponds were created; potato became king. Long Island in these years spawned a unique cultural expression that distinguished itself from the Melting Pot of New York and the Yankee folkways of New England. Stuart Chase, William Sidney Mount, and Francis Heinrich captured the character of the island in watercolors while Walt Whitman and William Cullen Bryan joined in the creation of a distinctly American literary genre.
Adding to this flourishing of commerce and culture was a bounty of land and sea that graced the world's dinner tables; a distinctly Long Island cuisine. If Chesapeake has its blue claw crabs, Maine's Down East coast its lobsters, and Prince Edward Island its mussels, than the clam reigns supreme on this fish-shaped isle. So called, "Manhattan clam chowder", for example, is actually of Long Island origin and popularized by New York City eateries that endowed it with its current moniker.
Long Island is proud of its oysters and the best in the world in colonial times, notwithstanding the excellencies of the Oyster Bay variety, were those big meaty ones bigger than a man's hand and harvested from the Gowanus - now a canal that's the very epitome of toxicity, fetidness, and anaerobic decay. During the aforesaid Golden Age, it was Blue Point from whence Buckingham Palace obtained its oysters and it was said that Queen Victoria would tolerate none other for state engagements.
The rise of the potato was a rapid one. Wheat was the principal cash crop in colonial times when the Hessian fly appeared on Long Island in the 1790's (said to have been transported in fodder from Hessian mercenaries during the 1776-83 British military occupation). Ravaged crops began to switch crops to potatoes when the opening-up of lands in western New York and the Ohio Valley by the Erie Canal and New York Central Rail Road. By 1870, Long Island was famous for the cultivation of potatoes when the Colorado Potato beetle reached the East Coast in vast Biblical plagues. Undaunted, farmers soldiered on until the next blight - the Golden nematode worm - appeared in a Hicksville field in 1934. Within a few years planting Cape Cod and Ranch houses would prove a more profitable yield.
It was towards the end of the Golden Age when old farms on the North Shore were being purchased by industrialists and merged into the vast estates of the Gold Coast, that cucumbers began to enjoy extensive cultivation in the agricultural settlements settled along the LIRR. H. J. Heinz company had pickle works in Bethpage and Hicksville where, after brining, the cucumbers were packed in wooden barrels and shipped to the company's main facility in Pittsburgh.
And then there's the Long Island duck, an industry worthy of its Flanders monument. Domesticated ducks replaced the duck-hunting and the world-famous decoys of Obadiah Verity and in the last half of the 19th Century, turkey-rearing became such a mainstay in the Bethpage area that it was called "Turkeyville". Zorn's on Hempstead Turnpike is the delicious heir to that legacy. "Turkeyville" may not have remained in the Long Island vernacular but an area known as "Christian Hill" by colonial farmers became Muttontown in 19th Century for its contribution to the local palate.
Levittown's been no stranger to the scrumptious over the years. My favorites being La Zingara, home of the singing waiter; Two Brother's Pizza for the best Sicilian pie in town; Dommenicoe's the quintessential example of fine dining; Fu Mei Kitchen, sadly destroyed by a fire; and the East Green Delicatessen. In our suburban age of fast food, the drive-through, Greek diners, clam bars, Chinese take-outs, pizza places, and the proliferation of Thai, Mexican, Indian, and Afghan restaurants - all washed down with Long Island Iced Tea, a North Fork vintage to rival Napa Valley, or cider at the Jericho Cider Mill - it's worth recalling that, true to any golden age, Long Islanders did not neglect the finer things in life that arrive on a dinner plate.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org