The Other East Hampton

By Hilary Mills

Published on August 17, 2007

For many years, my husband and I (and, later, with our son, Miles) have made faithful weekend pilgrimages from Manhattan to our house in the Hamptons—the community of towns on the easternmost tip of Long Island's South Fork, stretching along the Atlantic Ocean from Westhampton to Montauk Point. There is a reason for three otherwise sane individuals to brave two-and-a-half notoriously congested hours each way on the Long Island Expressway every week. It goes beyond, I believe, the urbanite's craving for the expansive horizons and sheer physical beauty of vast farmland extending to unlimited crystalline sea and sky. At least for us, it is more a yearning for some kind of rootedness to the land, for an authentic sense of place and history that we can slip into and call our own.

In the Hamptons, however, that yearning for authenticity can get complicated. East Hampton has been frequented by summer vacationers for a century, but since the 1970s, the influx of year-round weekenders, international summer people, and showbiz celebrities has swollen dramatically, threatening to turn the town into a transient playground, indifferent to local traditions. So there is a schizophrenic quality here: We desire what is indigenous and rooted, but we're acutely aware of (and perhaps a bit attracted to) the fact that this is a resort frequented by throngs of the richest, most demanding, fastest-paced people on the globe. Chic restaurants and tricky chefs offer their clientele the same Tuscan-this or Santa Fe-that that they can eat every night in Manhattan (or LA)—cuisines that have almost nothing to do with the lush natural resources and deep food traditions that here spring directly from farm and sea. Newcomers to the East End are oblivious to the venerable local culture of farmers and fishermen and the delicious legacy of home cooking—a dozen kinds of clam chowder, clam pies and fritters, corn puddings and lobster bakes, wild striped bass and bacon-wrapped bluefish, fresh berry cobblers—that has been served on family tables in the Hamptons for more than three hundred years.

At the Barefoot Contessa, a trendy food emporium in East Hampton village, customers who wear makeup and important jewelry before 9 a.m. pay exorbitant prices for dishes like roasted carrots and pre-grilled salmon. In so doing, though they may not realize it, they threaten a way of life that has been passed on for generations and is now in grave danger of disappearing altogether. Farmland here is fast giving way to multimillion-dollar houses that bulge unnaturally from the flat potato fields like erupting sores. Fishermen, in one of this country's oldest fishing communities, have watched as land and commercial development and its resulting pollution foul their waters. Today they compete with sports anglers for fish and with sunbathers for fishing ground—the beach. Writer Peter Matthiessen, a longtime resident of the East End who fished with the Lesters in the 1950s, chronicled the confluence of forces which altered that life. In 1998, just twelve years after the publication of his classic study of the local fishing culture, Men's Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork, he told us "Essentially, commercial fishing is finished. There are just a few old-timers who have really been around, who can still work a living around the edges."

If anyone can work a living around the edges, it would be a member of the Lester family, four clans of whom have farmed and fished here since arriving from northern England in the early 1700s. The Lesters are true Bonackers—a term which derives from the local place-name Accabonac, based on the Algonquin word for "root place", and which refers today to natives of the East End (and to East Hampton High School's sports teams). The original Bonackers, who settled around Accabonac Creek and Springs, used to call the residents of East Hampton village, five miles away, "upstreeters", and anyone whose family had not been here for at least a century and a half, a "foreigner". East Hampton's roots go back to this country's origins—the town was founded in 1648.

Literal roots are pervasive, too, for East Hampton's acres of sprawling fields yield, as they have for centuries, unparalleled produce: the sweetest corn and tomatoes, potatoes, onions, eggplants, sweet peppers, fruits, and berries.

The Round Swamp Lesters (so named for a swamp on their original property) know this bounty well, for they have farmed the same East Hampton land for nine generations. So do the Posey Lesters, who got their name when Captain Nathan Talmage Lester, a 19th-century whaler and bay fisherman who liked to wear posies in his buttonhole, moved to a neighborhood in nearby Amagansett—which became known as Poseyville. Almost all the Posey Lesters have been fishermen. Abundant local seafood has always sustained the community—hardshell and steamer clams, oysters, scallops, and whelks (known locally as winkles), cod, weakfish, bluefish, and striped bass—but fishing didn't become a major commercial enterprise until the turn of the century, when the railroad extension to Montauk first established a lifeline to New York City's Fulton Fish Market that exists to this day. Less appealing fish—menhaden, or bunkers (now thrown away, or salted for lobster bait)—supported hundreds of families in the form of organic fertilizer, processed in the huge fishmeal factories that thrived on Promised Land, a stretch of coast just beyond Amagansett. Only one rusted factory outpost remains in that part of Napeague now known only to a few baymen and hundreds of windsurfers, who head off towards the Bay's perfect wind in gear-laden Range Rovers that cost as much as a fisherman's house.

Carolyn Lester Snyder started her farm stand as a young girl back in the '50s, under the magnificent chestnut trees next to her grandmother Winifred Lester's house on Three Mile Harbor Road. Carolyn's father, Albert Lester, who inherited the 20-acre, 250-year-old Round Swamp family farm, built her a small red stand to peddle her goods, and she'd wait for someone to stop for a cucumber or a few ears of corn. "We were a poor family," Carolyn remembers, "but my Grandma Lester's table always looked like a gourmet feast. I don't know where all that food came from. There was always a tablecloth. Milk was served in pitchers. Homemade relishes, chutneys, mustard cauliflower, bread-and-butter pickles—the kind we still do today—accompanied every meal. There would always be roasted chickens or ducks or turkeys or pork, all raised on the farm. Stews—maybe of chicken and potatoes and dumplings—or samp [a local corn dish of hominy, beans, and ham or pigs' feet] were kept on the coal stove for hours. Beans, baked with salt pork, were usually part of the meal. Tall crocks of salt pork were kept in the root cellar with the canned fruits and vegetables. I never saw a baked potato on Grandma's table. It was always scalloped or mashed. And every day there were pies—lemon meringue, peach, beach plum—or cakes, yellow with chocolate frosting, set to cool by the window."

When Snyder's father died in 1968, she knew she had to carry on: "I've always been sure, in my heart and in my soul, that the farm market would continue." By the early '80s, her fisherman husband, Harold Snyder, had faced the reality that the commercial fishing industry in the Hamptons was in serious trouble, and had turned to farming instead (though he still manages to help supply the farm's fish market). Today the Snyders live in Grandma Lester's house. There is a swimming pool where the apple tree used to be, and the farm stand, now used to ice fish, has been joined by seven buildings and 14 family members in the country market known as Round Swamp Farm.

Tall, blonde, and a grandmother of four, Snyder looks an unlikely matriarch. But she has forged a role at the market for her sisters Dianna and Claire, her daughters Lisa and Shelly, their husbands, and their children. Today the produce of Round Swamp Farm, and the fruit of that produce (carrot cakes and zucchini breads, chutneys, sweet and hot pepper relishes, pickles and salsas, fruit jellies and jams, cobblers, pies and muffins), together with the Round Swamp fish market (stocked by Harold and Charlie Niggles, Lisa's husband), support six households. "They take pride in it because it's all theirs," Snyder explains. "The Lester legacy is driving all of them."

Farther east, in Amagansett, down a dirt road hidden behind the Mt. Fuji Japanese Restaurant, in a handful of cottages called Poseyville, that same proud Lester legacy comes alive around a tiny kitchen table. As I sit across from elderly fisherman Francis Lester, the remnants of his home-made clam fritters still in evidence from last night's dinner, I can't help but marvel at the fact that he has just hauled 35 lobster pots that morning. There is no question of his "retiring", for as his son Jens Lester—a fisherman too—puts it: "You get salt water in the blood." Francis shoots back, "You're independent when you're fishing, too."

Grandson of the original Posey Lester, Captain Nathan Talmage, Francis clearly remembers rising at four in the morning from April through Thanksgiving each year, with his fisherman father, Captain Frank, and his four brothers, taking their boats to the ocean beach for striped bass or bluefish, then returning home by ten for a big breakfast—typically, fried bluefish and pancakes. After a midday nap, they'd head out to fish again until sundown. If the day's catch was good, they'd buy ice from the ice man, pack the fish under the trees in Captain Frank's yard, and wait for the Fulton Fish Market truck to pick it up. Then it was home for an early dinner of scallop stew or clam pie or cod baked with salt pork strips. "I'd rather have bluefish than striped bass any day," says Jens Lester. "We usually just pan fry 'em, but sometimes we put 'em in foil with salt, pepper, and lemon pepper and steam 'em. Some people put so much stuff on it, it kills the fish. A little tomato is okay, but no mayonnaise."

The fishing life Francis remembers with his father (and that Jens remembers as a child) is now long gone. In the old days, fishermen would drive along the beach, their dories loaded with seine nets on trailers, looking for gulls dipping over the water—a likely sign of fish. Then they would quickly launch their dories into the surf, carefully calculating the proper combination of waves. One side of each huge seining net was attached to a winch on the pickup truck; after a boat headed out, it would slowly turn back toward the beach, and the winch would haul in the net, gathering all the fish in its arc—hundreds of pounds of bluefish, striped bass, flounder, weakfish, porgies, and anything else in its path. But a declining bass population, a forceful sport fishermen's lobby, and encroaching pollution made it increasingly difficult for fishermen to use their haul seine boats in the surf. By 1986 haul seining for striped bass was banned on East End beaches altogether.

The striped bass population, which peaked at 15 million pounds in 1973, had dropped to just a third of that by 1980. Many deemed overfishing the culprit (fishermen, on the other hand, blamed pollution in the spawning grounds of the Chesapeake Bay and northern rivers). The Department of Environmental Conservation felt it had to do something. The state passed a bill in 1983 limiting the size of bass fished commercially to 24 inches or more. This effectively wiped out the smaller "money fish", which had been the fishermen's bread and butter. Then traces of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were found in Long Island waters, and the DEC imposed a total ban on commercial fishing for striped bass between 1986 and 1989. Today, commercial fishermen can take only stripers between 24 and 36 inches, with a limit of just 97 fish in a six-month period. Sports fishermen, on the other hand, are allowed one fish (28" minimum) per day over a seven-month season (a total of 222 fish). With the sportsmen's encouragement, says Matthiessen, the commercial guys were legislated out of existence.

"You can take a rod and reel and go catch more bass than I am allowed in a year," moans Francis's cousin, Stewart Lester, son of the late Ted Lester (himself owner of the once-thriving, now-defunct Montauk Seafood shop). "Because I'm a commercial fisherman, I'm forbidden." Stewart is taking the day off at his ranch house in Springs, where his boat, lobster pots, scalloping equipment, and nets adorn his untended yard. Yesterday he hauled 190 lobster pots and sold 132 lobsters to Gosman's Fish Market in Montauk, for $3 a pound. Lobstering and clamming in the summer and scalloping in the fall have always helped these fishermen through the lean times, but now they're a primary income source. The government doesn't help: Stewart takes out his wallet and shows me no fewer than seven licenses, one for each kind of fishing. These cost money. His son and coworker, Ted, was seriously injured when he fell on a reef in 1991—it took years before he was able to help again. There's no money for health insurance or more help. Stewart started lobstering as a sideline in 1960; now it's his main source of income, which he supplements by working his two pound traps for fish.

The Round Swamp Lesters have survived and prospered in part because of Carolyn Snyder's uncanny ability to adapt to modern demands while still keeping faith with the land. If a hurricane handed her a whole field of ripe red peppers to harvest at once, Snyder made pepper relish. She intuitively understands the demands of a public that yearns for the authentic—old-fashioned pickles or chocolate chip cookies like those her grandmother made—but craves salsa and chips, too. "I hate the chip rack, but I need it for the salsa," she sighs. A few years ago, a movie producer customer begged her to make up holiday boxes of Round Swamp's relishes and preserves as gifts for his friends. She protested, but a hundred boxes later, she found herself in the holiday box business—thus extending the season long after the Farm's shop closes. But the going has been harder on the Posey Lesters. They have less and less recourse in this resort economy, as the number of sports fishermen increases and their lobbying of the DEC intensifies. "I see the young ones heading out to different jobs, not fishing and not farming," says Stewart Lester. "My son saw the good times. I probably should never have let him near the beach."

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