CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Just like the baseball playoffs, the East End’s giant peaches are an end-of-summer treat (and bigger than a baseball). It gives me great satisfaction to roast something large. The pride of the Thanksgiving turkey, the suckling ...


Whole foods and the joy of roasting large things

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Just like the baseball playoffs, the East End’s giant peaches are an end-of-summer treat (and bigger than a baseball).

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Just like the baseball playoffs, the East End’s giant peaches are an end-of-summer treat (and bigger than a baseball).

It gives me great satisfaction to roast something large. The pride of the Thanksgiving turkey, the suckling pig, the rack of lamb placed on the table in triumph, the dish that practically yells, “There is plenty, have some more.” 

Roasting large things is a pleasure usually confined to meats and the occasional winter squash. So when Clark McCombe of Briermere Farms invited me to admire some large peaches that had just been picked in his orchard near Riverhead, I couldn’t take my eyes off the one-pound plus fruits.  I went home with seven pounds, which sounds like a lot until you consider that I had just six peaches.

A one-and-a-half pounder at Briermere Farms in Riverhead.

A one-and-a-half pounder at Briermere Farms in Riverhead.

If you split the fruit in half and scoop out the pit, you get a nice pocket to fill with the brown-sugar crumble and almonds. The peaches will hold their shape; the flesh is creamy and soft, the topping crunchy and almonds browned. It’s OK to use smaller peaches, but you’ll have to do a lot more peeling, and shorten the cooking time by about half.

Giant peach-roast with brown-sugar crumble

Two 1-pound peaches make 4 servings

2 peaches of 1-pound or more each

½ cup flour

½ cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1/3 cup cold unsalted butter


Peach Crumble, the final product.

1/3 cup slivered almonds

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

2. Using a large slotted spoon, lower each peach into boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove, cool immediately by running the peach under cold water. Slip the skin off.

3. Cut each peach in half, starting at the stem end, and cutting through the flesh to the pit, 360 degrees around the peach. With one hand on one half of the peach, and one on the other, twist the two halves free of the pit. You may have to use a spoon to pry the pit out of one of the halves.

4. Line the bottom of a baking dish with a piece of parchment, and butter the parchment. Place the peaches on the buttered parchment with pitted side up, making a cup that will hold the crumble.

5. Mix the flour, sugar and spices in a bowl and using your fingers, incorporate the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle the mixture over the peaches, and distribute the slivered almonds on top of each peach.

6. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes until the topping is brown and the peaches still hold their shape.


Partners in life, food and loving the Island

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Dulcinea Benson and Frank DeCarlo on the dock/dining room of Barba Bianca, their Greenport restaurant.CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Dulcinea Benson and Frank DeCarlo on the dock/dining room of Barba Bianca, their Greenport restaurant.

Published on September 19, 2017 in the Shelter Island Reporter

On a Friday afternoon before Labor Day, a vintage Mercedes sports car the color of New England clam chowder pulled up to Southold Fish Market, inches from picnickers enjoying oyster po’boys.

A white-bearded man in chef’s whites and worn leather clogs hopped out. Carrying a large, empty plastic tub, he jogged inside and began sorting through every porgy in the store. There were a lot of them.

“Too small Charlie, these are all too small,” he said, peering around the wide glass windows that covered yards of iced monkfish, bluefish and striped bass. Charlie Manwaring, who owns the market, produced another 30-gallon tub of iced fish, and the man rifled through the glistening porgies, rejecting the too-small and the too-large, and tossing the just-right into his tub.

Minutes later he arrived at the boardwalk in front of Barba Bianca, the restaurant on the Greenport waterfront that he opened in May.

Chef Frank (Frankie) DeCarlo and Dulcinea (Dulcy) Benson, his wife and business partner, have lived in Silver Beach for 12 years, but claim that no one on Shelter Island had heard of them until they opened Barba Bianca — Italian for “white beard” — in Greenport. They were fine being anonymous, but Frankie admitted he likes that the guys on the ferry have started to greet him when he goes to work in Greenport every day.

Frankie was one of the first chefs to marry fine-dining and the now ubiquitous wood burning oven. For more than 15 years, Frankie and Dulcy’s restaurant, Peasant, on the Lower East Side, has been the place to enjoy rustic Italian food as well as a gathering place for chefs who want to see how Frankie tames the flames.

At their new place, fishing and the waterfront are the show. Barba Bianca, situated in a wooden building surrounded by other wooden structures, required a shift from 600-degree open flames to 300-degree open views of the harbor and Shelter Island.

Dulcy grew up in Shirley and spent a good chunk of her childhood clamming, crabbing and fishing with her father on the Great South Bay. “We couldn’t put our pole in the water without catching something,” she said.

Frankie started cooking as a child growing up in Mountainside, New Jersey in an old house on five acres with a pond. “I was in a household where, when I came home at night, I had to cook for myself. I started early.”

He often made “a pot of gravy,” slang for a tomato sauce served with supermarket pasta. He was an enthusiast for Velveeta Pillows, a bizarre early 1970s corporate-invented snack. For this delicacy, teenage Frankie employed a hinged griddle, loaded with two pieces of buttered Wonder bread and four lumps of processed cheese to make four pillows per slice — a shotgun marriage of grilled cheese sandwich and ravioli.

Cooking was a positive channel for Frankie’s early fascination with fire. “I was a bit of a pyromaniac,” he admitted. He began working in restaurants when he was 14 and has never stopped.

Never much of a student, he barely made it through two years of high school.

Dulcy went to American University, worked in public relations and then got into restaurant management. She and Frankie met when he was the chef at Circa, an East Village restaurant, and she came in to talk to the owners about being a manager.

“He was all disheveled, and he ran over and asked if I wanted a coffee.” Dulcy said. She considered this odd. In her experience, a chef’s interaction with the staff was mainly to yell at them.

“I wanted to meet this girl,” Frankie explained.

The owners asked Dulcy if she had a boyfriend. She did, and remembers them saying, “That’s good, because the chef has a problem.”

“Frankie is so talented, but with no discipline,” she said. “I like things orderly, I love rules.”

It was a year of battling before they worked out a relationship that has endured for almost 20 years. “We’ve been through it all. It’s hard to work with your spouse,” she said.

“I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

After years of cooking in New York, Frankie went to Italy to learn traditional Pugliese cooking. In many of the kitchens he visited, cooking didn’t involve using gas. “People would light olive or grape trimmings, and they’d cook at home that way, lighting little fires in their ovens or on a rotisserie. I used to dream one day of building a kitchen and having only wood fires and I did, and that was Peasant.”

Today restaurants that cook with wood or charcoal are more common, but 20 years ago Frankie was a pioneer; he’s still the rare chef who cooks on the line every night.

Peasant had been open a little over a year when the terrorist attack of 9/11 took place. Dulcy and Frankie were in their apartment five blocks from the Twin Towers, just returned the night before on a 20-hour flight from Korea, and were so disoriented they both thought they were hallucinating the events of that September morning. Frankie went up to the roof and watched the first tower come down.

With the city in shock, and lower Manhattan a smoky scene of ruin, running Peasant, their livelihood, seemed impossible. “But we opened,” Dulcy said. “People came in. They’d feel awkward, maybe order some appetizers. I don’t even know how we got food in there. They talked and they felt better.” By the end of October Frankie and Dulcy knew they would make it through the crisis.

The couple had “a first second home” in Delaware, but Dulcy longed to be on the East End.  She knew she’d found the right place when she spotted a modest house a short walk from Crab Creek with a pool and a 60-foot American Sycamore in the yard.

“You can build a house in a few months, but to grow a tree that size takes a lifetime,” she said. “There’s a certain kind of person who is on Shelter Island, who doesn’t mind waiting for a ferry, who won’t have access to everything 24/7. Impatient people can’t be here.”

Frankie and Dulcy plan to retire on the Island, hoping to hang onto an old-school way of life, in a place where people don’t think of honking their horns. “I hope it doesn’t change,” said Dulcy.

We’re honest people, simple people, Frankie said.

“One of us is simpler than the other,” said Dulcy. She was looking at him.

Lightning round

What do you always have with you?  Frank: I have a very unusual knife, about 80 years old, bone handle, handmade, birds eye rivets. It’s always in my pocket.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Dulcinea: Crab Creek

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Both: Venice.

Last time you were elated?  Dulcinea: I never get elated. That’s never happened. I’m not like that.

What exasperates you?  Dulcinea: We’ve had people throw things, and threaten to kill you because they can’t get a table.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  Frank: Any summer day that I’m not working and able to stay home.

Favorite movie or book?  Dulcinea: “A Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway

Favorite food?  Frank: Spaghetti pomodoro, especially if Dulcy makes it.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Frank: Chef Jean-Louis Palladin.


Seasonally adjusted

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Long Island Cheese looks like the pumpkin that carried Cinderella to the ball.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Long Island Cheese looks like the pumpkin that carried Cinderella to the ball.

Published on September 14 in the Shelter Island Reporter

My long bed-making ordeal is over.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, I wrestled a fitted, flat and two pillowcases into submission more times than in the other 38 weeks of the year by a factor of two. This is because when people come across the water to visit me, I treat them to clean sheets. Unless they have only come for dinner.

I am not good at making beds and I can’t do that square-corner thing. On the day in Girl Scout Camp they taught us the origami-move that wraps a sheet around the edge of the mattress, I was in the infirmary being treated for swimmer’s ear from doing laps in the mossy, concrete pit that passed for a swimming pool in Central Florida in the 1960s.

Ecclesiastes 3 goes, “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” On the East End, we are almost past the time to plant, and are well into the time to pluck up that which is planted. For me that means plucking up things left behind by weekend guests and visiting family. For farmers, baymen and everyone who eats, this a season of bounty, that extends for another four months, the best time of the year.

There is no better time or place than the North Fork in the fall. Our winter squashes are positively iconic. The pumpkin that transformed into Cinderella’s carriage looks just like our Long Island Cheese variety.

When I am stuck in pumpkin traffic trying to get home on the North Road, I imagine that the car attached to the bumper I’ve been staring at for five miles is a giant Long Island Cheese on wheels, drawn by a pair of white horses, and Cinderella is sitting in there with her remaining glass slipper in her lap.

It takes my mind off the wait.

September used to be the time to pluck up scallops, but since the die-off in the late 1980s opening day for bay scallops has been the first Monday in November.

Baymen have been known to throw out a dredge in September and see what comes up to get a hint of what the season will bring, the way my son used to conduct a covert survey of the contents of the closet where Christmas presents were stored, months in advance of the holidays.

He never unwrapped, just shook and poked. In that spirit, baymen will toss the contents of an exploratory dredge back once they’re reassured there will be scallops come November.

The Lions Club has held steady with their Columbus Day Weekend date for the annual scallop dinner for the past three decades, because there are still enough tourists around to fill out the crowd, even though having the dinner before the start of the season means they have to serve imported scallops.

The scallop population has seen steady improvement in recent years, but this season there may not be as many as last year’s bumper crop of juvenile scallops, or “bugs,” would suggest.

According to a Long Island University biologist with the Bay Scallop Restoration Project, illegal harvesting of juvenile scallops during the 2016-17 season likely put a damper on this season’s harvest. The result may be higher prices for the lucky few who can get them.

The central question of Ecclesiastes 3, is “What do we get for all our hard work?” The week after Labor Day is a good time to entertain that question, which the Island’s economic stability, beauty and quality of life hangs on.

The closest the Island got to an industry other than tourism was the great Lima Bean Cooperative of the 1950s, which employed upwards of 60 people in the summer and fall picking, sorting and packaging lima beans in a factory near the site of the Shelter Island Historical Society’s new campus.

It was an attempt to establish an industry that would diversify the Island economy; serving lima beans to the post-war nation, and not just tourists.

Islanders with good enough memories to recall those days say the smell of harvested bean vines pervaded the Island. In 1954, Hurricane Carol damaged the crop and then three more hurricanes in a row finished it off, leaving the farmers of the cooperative in debt.

These days, our primary industry is providing beds, preferably adjacent to a swimming pool — the chlorinated kind. A water view costs extra. An opponent of the short-term rental regulations cited statistics the Airbnb site alone accounted for almost $2 million in vacation rentals of Island homes in 2016.

Less smelly than lima bean processing, and more lucrative than scalloping, the summer tourist season is a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.

And a lot of bed-making.


Saving Sylvester Manor, and social justice. Did baking powder do all that?



Published on September 7, 2017 in the Shelter Island Reporter

When food historian Linda Civitello, author of “Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People,” tells the story of baking powder, as she did at a recent Friday Night Dialogue at the library, she starts by describing the state of bread baking in this country before baking powder existed. An America unrecognizable to this reporter; a place without chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes.

Another way to look at the effect of baking powder is to imagine America if Eben Horsford, lord of Sylvester Manor in the 19th century, hadn’t developed it, Shelter Island would look very different too. Instead of acres of woods, farmland, gardens, barns and a Manor House up a lane from the IGA, there would likely be two hundred 5,000 square-foot homes on one-acre lots.

Most of what we think of as real American cooking owes its existence to baking powder, Ms. Civitello said recently in an interview. She cited the baking powder biscuit as one of America’s finest contributions to culinary history. “Cornbread, graham crackers, blueberry pancakes, these are ours,” she said. “We invented them, they came from American women in their kitchens.”

In the early chapters of her book, Ms. Civitello notes that in the time before chemical leaveners, the first step in creating bread was to make yeast. That’s why early cookbooks, including Catherine Beecher’s “Domestic Receipt Book,” published in 1858, had pages of recipes for making yeast for bread. These instructions were helpful in New England, where literacy rates among women were close to 100 percent, but less so in the American South, where universal schooling for girls was only mandated after the Civil War and many women, especially enslaved ones, did not read.

Liberation comes to the kitchen

In an effort to better understand what was involved in making bread in the 1850s, Ms. Civitello described her attempt to mix a dough similar to one that a woman in the kitchen at Sylvester Manor might have made. It involved 8 quarts of flour, salt, 2 quarts of water and a pint of homemade yeast. It made pounds and pounds of dough, and kneading and mixing it required a physical effort she could barely summon, and hoped never to have to repeat.

The first widely-used chemical leavener was bicarbonate of soda, which when mixed with an acid, briefly produces gas bubbles. A 19th century baker could add vinegar, or cream of tartar, derived from grapes, or another acid to the dough to get a rise. But bitter tastes, and uneven rising were common problems.

This was the sad state of American bread making when Mr. Horsford was appointed Rumford Professor of Chemistry at Harvard, and a year later married Mary Gardiner, whose family owned Sylvester Manor. Mr. Horsford “married up,” and his pursuit of Mary Gardiner motivated his academic and business aspirations.

His 1861 treatise, “The Theory and Art of Bread Making,” described how awful the other methods of bread making with chemical leaveners were. “He had tasted bread made with cream of tartar,” Ms. Civitello said, “And he was seeking a remedy.”

She described the debate that raged in American universities between the theoretical and the practical. Harvard, where Mr. Horsford was a professor, came down on the side of the theoretical. “But Horsford had trained at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a civil engineer, and his approach to teaching Harvard students was to take them on factory tours,” Ms. Civitello said. Once he figured out how to make money from his reformulation of baking powder, Horsford quit Harvard.

Advertisement for Eben Horsford’s acid phosphate, a key ingredient in the formulation of Rumford baking powder.

Advertisement for Eben Horsford’s Acid Phosphate, a key ingredient in the formulation of Rumford baking powder.

Doing well by doing good

With his partner, George Wilson, he formed the Rumford company specifically to make baking and medicinal products. Their goals were to do good, while also doing well for themselves.

It’s not an overstatement that if Mr. Horsford had not made so much money from his Rumford brand of baking powder, Sylvester Manor might have passed out of the family a century ago. Profits from the sale of Rumford baking powder produced the wherewithal for the family to hold onto it, and make a gift of it to the public in 2012.

Ms. Civitello said that Horsford was also notable because of policies he instituted at the Rumford company for women employees. With five daughters from two beloved wives — the Gardiner sisters, Mary and Phoebe — Mr. Horsford understood that supporting women in their work, whether at home or in his factory, helped the business and improved society. (Of course, his own family had servants to make their daily bread.)

If baking powder hadn’t fomented a revolution in American baking, the stakes for companies such as Royal and Rumford would not have been so high. American women voted for baking powder with their dollars. Ms. Civitello documents the profound change by examining period cookbooks, in which recipes for baking powder breads and cakes soon outnumbered recipes using yeast.

The marketing war between rival baking powder manufacturers is the core of another book by Ms. Civiletto, “The Baking Powder Wars,” chronicling one of the ugliest business scandals in American history, but one Mr. Horsford did not get to see. “He died before the down and dirty part took place,” Ms. Civitello said.

Unintended consequences?
He was however, a target of attack by other baking powder companies, especially the Royal company that denigrated calcium phosphate, a component of Horsford’s baking powder derived from animal bones, as “bone dust.”

The invention of baking powder also had unintended negative consequences on American’s health and nutrition, which Ms. Civitello speaks to this in her book. Not only did baking powder lead to an explosion of packaged cookies, cakes and crackers of questionable nutritional value in the 20th century, but it made possible the rise of fry bread among native Americans who switched almost overnight from traditional corn-based breads to fried baking powder and wheat flour fritters.

In the past few weeks, a national dialogue has broken out about the good and the evil done by historical figures. Did Mr. Horsford do more good than bad? Ms. Civitello’s fascinating book sets the stage for the debate. But before you vilify chemical leaveners as poisonous junk food enablers, think of the Ritz Cracker you held aloft last week for eclipse-viewing. It would have no tiny pin-holes without baking powder.

Would #sheetcaking be a thing in a world without baking powder? No, not so much as a gleam in Tina Fey’s eye.


Island Profile; Christine Finn, ready to lead Shelter Island School

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Christine Finn at The Islander this week.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Christine Finn at The Islander this week.

Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on September 7, 2017

Christine Finn, a teacher and education administrator, has a sure-fire way to get the flavor of the local culture when she travels overseas. Go to McDonald’s.

“In Paris, the McDonald’s had very nice macarons.”

The differences between a McDonald’s in Moscow versus Mattituck were also revealing.

“In Russia, they had a dysfunctional system, ordering at one window, and picking up the order at another window,” she recalled.

Since there is no McDonald’s on Shelter Island, her first taste of the place was accompanying a friend who was running the 10K. That was 10 years ago, and since then she’s been thinking about making a place for herself in this community.

When Christine got the call letting her know that she’d be the next superintendent of the Shelter Island School, she was over the moon.

Christine was born and raised on Long Island. Her dad worked for Grumman, and she went to high school in Islip, college at C.W. Post and has a D.Ed. from St. John’s University. Her sister is an auditor for Stony Brook University. Her brother and her parents now live out of state, but her family is close and supportive.

Christine started college thinking she’d be an English major, but a summer job at a nursery school changed her life. “I fell into teaching. It was very happy accident,” she said. “I just loved that you could do something and the kids would respond, especially when they were so little, so happy to see you, and
so joyful.”

After changing her major to elementary education, Christine graduated and began to teach first grade in Brentwood at a school with huge classes, no teaching aides and plenty of obstacles for students to overcome. Many of her students had parents who worked long hours and had no time to read to them; some of her students didn’t speak English at home.

“You want to change the world?” she said. “Well, I was doing something that had a significant impact.”

She spent 10 years teaching 1st and 4th grades. “I taught a lot of kids how to read,” she said, “and I was really proud of that.”

Christine’s experience in the classroom convinced her that great teachers are not always born knowing how to be effective. Experience showed her how to help other teachers improve. “I don’t think I was a natural, but I became very good at it. I was fortunate, the women I worked with showed me the tricks,” she said. “When I see a teacher struggling, I know it can be fixed, that I can help them.

“Most teachers have a certain outlook on life. The glass isn’t half full, the glass is refillable.”

Christine made the shift from the classroom to administration when the principal of her school encouraged her, saying, “You have that little sparkle.” For the next decade, she worked in the Patchogue-Medford district, starting in low-level positions, then assistant principal and principal, and then three years in the district office. From there, she was tapped by the Herricks School District in New Hyde Park, to become assistant superintendent for curriculum.

When she learned Shelter Island was looking for a superintendent, she told her boss she was going to toss her hat into the ring, one of more than 50 applicants seeking to lead the school. It was a brave move. “I was very comfortable in Herricks,” Christine said. “Here I’m in charge, but with a lot of people supporting. My old boss used to say, ‘It’s not the superintendent, it’s the superintendency. It’s everybody who sits at the table with you.’”

Christine was married, but divorced by the time her son and daughter were three and 18 months old. “I raised them on my own, but not really,” she said. “I had a lot of help from my family and his family.”

Christine’s children, Thomas, 27, and Colleen, 25 will be moving with her and their three-month old chocolate Lab, Phoebe Fiona to a dog-friendly development near Wading River in a couple of weeks. “She’s my daughter’s dog but she loves my son best,” Christine said.

She couldn’t help but gush a little about her kids, “Thomas is on the autism spectrum, and he’s very self-sufficient,” she said. “He drives, he works, he likes connecting with people. I’m very proud of him. My daughter Colleen is an old soul — bright, beautiful.”
Colleen is attending Suffolk County Community College.

Christine’s boyfriend, who she met via, is a writer and lives in Massachusetts.

An avowed night owl, Christine confesses that she has sent the occasional late-night email. “Don’t panic because I emailed you at two in the morning,” she’ll say. “It’s just because I had an epiphany.”

She mentally organizes her working life in decades. Her first 10 years as a teacher, her second 10 years as a middle-level administrator, ending her career with 10 years as a superintendent for Shelter Island.

“I don’t see this job as practice. This is the place I want to be, and I hope the teachers all feel that way, too,” Christine said. “There are many wonderful things we have here, and I’ll learn about more. I’ll have an opinion, and I’ll share it, and I won’t do it all by myself.”


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