The Strawberry Festival at the End of the World

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Kaitlyn: The Hampton Jitney, according to a New York Times article from 1985, is “the quintessential transportation for a certain kind of New Yorker.” George Plimpton claimed to have written one and a half books while riding it. Lauren Bacall was also a well-known patron. Passengers were given free seltzer and newspapers then, but that is no longer the case. Now you get a half-size Poland Spring and no reading material, and you are made to watch an animated video about how to avoid falling down the steps and into the arms of a Hampton Jitney employee, angering your nearby boyfriend. Whatever!

The Hampton Jitney is a fairly nice bus to the Hamptons—you’ve heard of it from Carrie Bradshaw, or you’ve heard of it from Blair Waldorf, or you’ve heard of it from someone you know in real life who is rich (or, as in Carrie’s case, has access to rich people). What you might not have realized is that all other kinds of New Yorkers may also ride the Hampton Jitney, assuming that they are willing to go out to the Hamptons and back in a single day, having no vacation home to stay in at night, and assuming that it’s worth it to them to save about 20 minutes compared with the cheaper and more convenient Long Island Railroad. With this in mind, Lizzie and I took the subway from Brooklyn to the corner of 41st Street and Lexington Avenue, our closest Hampton Jitney pickup location.

Early on a Saturday morning, we stood around in the company of a stately woman in kitten heels, a bunch of European 20-somethings passing around a vape, and a pair of teenagers who can only be described as a meaner-looking Chace Crawford with TikTok-star hair and his sister, who had a tennis racket. There, we waited to board a bus.

Lizzie: A few days earlier, on Thursday night, Kaitlyn had reminded me that we needed to be at the 41st Street Jitney stop a randomly specific seven minutes prior to our 9 a.m. departure time. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to leaving my apartment at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to go to Midtown, but I was excited for my first Jitney experience. What kinds of characters would be on board? Would there be snacks? Live entertainment?

Why was I under the impression that the Jitney was fancy? Maybe because it has a proper name that doesn’t have the word bus in it, like Megabus. Imagine my surprise when I find out it’s just a bus. In my head there wasn’t so much carsick-gray upholstery inside. Maybe light-brown-leather seats instead and, I don’t know, interesting flooring? A chandelier? A tray table where I could rest my champagne glass? Apparently this expectation was not grounded in reality. Our Jitney was just a regular bus wrapped in an NYU Langone Health ad.

Kaitlyn: We were the only people on the Jitney who wore masks at any time. I’m not trying to be shrill, but I did find that genuinely surprising. Lizzie and I ended up near the back of the Jitney, with a good view of the bathroom door. It looked more like a narrow, felt-covered cabinet, and it was less than six inches away from a row of seats that soon filled up with a bunch of loud young boys. I bring this up only to suggest that the Jitney-bathroom sex scene on Gossip Girl was implausible and could have resulted in criminal charges. (This was a very scold-y paragraph, I realize.)

Lizzie: We couldn’t sit together, because we were almost the last people to board, but that was fine since Kaitlyn fell asleep. The man next to me watched Star Wars on his tablet and then read an article about Star Wars.

We were also the only people who got off where we got off: Mattituck, somewhere in the North Fork of Long Island. The bus stop was on the side of a highway, described in the ticket confirmation email as “across the street from the Chase Bank.” It was! Our plan was to figure out where we were (other than on Route 25 in Long Island) and walk toward an area that might have food. The block we ended up on felt like “downtown” Mattituck, if such a thing exists. I say “block,” because it really was one singular block with a few stores (wine, fabric arts) and what seemed like the best option for our first meal of the day: the Love Lane Kitchen.

At this point you might be wondering: Why Mattituck? The answer is, we found out via diligent research that the Mattituck Lions Club was hosting its annual strawberry festival this weekend. Not only would there be a crowning of the new Mattituck “Strawberry Queen,” there would also be a strawberry-shortcake-eating contest, plus games and rides, etc., etc. It’s just the sort of fruit-based local event we like to fill our weekends with, and given our history with Long Island (mainly, drinking disgusting wine and meeting a giant pig), it made sense to return.

The plan for the rest of the day was TBD. We were hoping to figure things out as we went.

Kaitlyn: After some eggs and potatoes, Lizzie and I marched across the street to a wine store and tasting room. I am declining to name the store, though I know you could easily figure it out. We asked for a tasting and were brought some rosé, a cabernet franc, and something referred to only as the Marco Tulio, as if Marco were himself a grape varietal. (He was a red.) It was similar to our previous experience with Long Island wine in that it wasn’t good at all and it seemed like everyone involved must know it.

We sipped the rosé very slowly and reviewed some of the free literature we’d picked up to help plan our day. Boating World newspaper looked promising but turned out to be fairly technical; it was more for people who literally owned boats, not just any old girl looking for boat-related fun. Northforker was more helpful because it had a big photo spread regarding the strawberry festival, which made it look like a great time and a great choice by us. It also mentioned oyster-farm tours, and Lizzie got totally distracted by that idea, even after I told her the tours were $100 per person and not offered on Saturdays. She spent the rest of the tasting looking up stuff about oysters on her phone.

Luckily, there was a feature in the magazine about the new proprietors of the nearby Catapano Dairy Farm, which exclusively produces dairy made by goats. I read the end of the article aloud to Lizzie:

The Burkes are clearly fitting right into the North Fork farming community and were even able to answer the toughest question we could ask them: “What’s their favorite Catapano cheese?”

“I love our Summer Cloud,” Erin said.

After a slight pause, Connor gave his answer.

“I love the feta,” he said.

Minutes later, we were picked up in a BMW with blood-red seats and were off on our way to look at some goats.

A table with six wine glasses on it, from a wine tasting. A woman pending over with a black hat covering her face.
A rosé, a cabernet franc, and a Marco Tulio. (Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tiffany)

Lizzie: I was ready to harvest some oysters! I’ve already seen goats. But the goats were free; the oysters weren’t. The goats were close; the oysters weren’t. The goats were available for public viewing; the oysters weren’t. So goats it was. That’s a lesson: Sometimes you gotta pick the goats. If you’ve ever been to any kind of animal farm, you already know what was waiting for us there: goats standing around, goats lying down, goats headbutting each other, goats peeing, goats chewing on a plastic bucket, goats chewing on their own feet.

Inside the “Milking Parlor” there was a framed poster titled “Goat Knowledge,” presumably referring to an unnamed source’s knowledge about goats and not knowledge possessed by the goats. We also stopped by the store to check out the goat dairy, but we’re not goat-dairy people.

Kaitlyn: I actually wanted to buy some goat dairy—I was curious about the aforementioned Summer Cloud—but I didn’t want to carry soft cheese around Long Island all day.

By early afternoon we were traipsing along the side of another highway. We wound up at a halfway decent winery where we talked about the Sideways renaissance—a real cultural phenomenon that we are simultaneously predicting and claiming first knowledge of. Soon, everyone will be going to Solvang. Hot girls will wear silver upper-arm cuffs. We’ll all drive Saabs (just kidding, our dads would never allow it).

At the second winery, we tried a couple of trendy pét-nats that tasted normal. This was a blessing and a curse, as being physically capable of getting the wine down also meant that I started to have a classically bad drug-alcohol interaction—I had forgotten about the generic motion-sickness tablet I’d popped on the Jitney! To avoid going facedown into our gruyere, I excused myself from the table and took a short jaunt down to look at the train tracks.

Lizzie: Kait was having an unusually sleepy day. There was that nap on the Jitney, and now her eyes were slowly closing as we talked about Sideways, and I don’t think it was related to the conversation. As you may have noted in our boat episode of this newsletter, we are both Dramamine (or Dramamine-adjacent) people, but I had taken the nondrowsy varietal. There was also the issue of the wine, and the fact that it was everywhere. Earlier in the day I’d heard a woman say, “We can’t stop at any more stores. No. We have to get to the winery.” This is what it’s like on the North Fork of Long Island. If you’re not going to the strawberry festival, you’re going to a winery and you absolutely cannot afford to take any more detours.

Speaking of the strawberry festival, that’s where we went next.

Kaitlyn: The strawberry festival was one of those grungy-but-exhilarating carnivals that roll in and out of every small town every summer, but with a few strawberry-related accents, i.e., you could buy strawberry shortcake, and they were crowning the Strawberry Queen. (We couldn’t hear much, so I was rooting arbitrarily for the girl who chose ABBA as her walk-out music. She lost.)

Lizzie and I paid $20 to play a balloon-dart game, each hitting and popping several balloons, and then we were allowed to pick one prize from a row of clearly used stuffed animals. We spent a very long time figuring out how to put $12 on some kind of carnival MetroCard so that we could go down a slide. (Say it with me: Technology makes things worse!) The slide was amazing, though—insanely fast, the kind where you put your toes in a burlap bag. The slide man was taking three people at a time without regard to “groups,” so our three was me and Lizzie and a 4-year-old who had been in line with his older brother.

We also tried the shortcake …

A woman holding a stuffed pink frog, which is holding a heart that says
A prize. It says "Wild for You." (Courtesy of Lizzie Plaugic)

Lizzie: This is where the whole thing started to come undone. While waiting in the food tent to buy strawberry-themed edibles like the aforementioned shortcake and a strawberry daiquiri (virgin), we saw something strange: boxes upon boxes filled with plastic clamshells of strawberries, bearing the brand name Driscoll’s. Had we been totally conned? Had we traveled multiple hours via bus-Jitney to experience not the expected small, sweet, locally nurtured berries of Long Island’s farms, but the big, corporate, allegedly labor-violating berries of Driscoll’s? We couldn’t believe it! We were going to blow the lid off this whole thing!

We did eat the shortcake anyway, and it wasn’t very good. This made what happened next even more difficult: the strawberry-shortcake-eating contest. At this point in the day the sun had completely abandoned Long Island in favor of bleak, gray skies and total cloud coverage, with the kind of wind that felt pulled from a different season entirely. It was under this somewhat menacing sky that 10 competitors lined up onstage and prepared to put as many pounds of shortcake into their bodies as they could possibly stand.

Kaitlyn: The event’s emcee described competitive eating as a battlefield, upon which “God and Lucifer wage war for men’s souls.” He was captivating. We believed him! Yet the competitors were diverse in seriousness—one woman wearing neon-green sunglasses picked at the same single bowl of strawberry shortcake throughout the full eight minutes of competition, which we loathed. Honestly, don’t participate if you’re not going to at least get messy and try, or pretend to try. It’s disrespectful and fuck off. (“She’s just having a dessert,” Lizzie remarked bitterly. “Yeah,” I said, in a mean way.)

Also competing, much more seriously: a very cool-seeming woman from Queens and her mentor, a man named Crazy Legs, who was wearing a hat with pink streamers hanging from the brim; a British man who had reportedly eaten 50 Cadbury Creme Eggs in one sitting in the past; a wrestler from Buffalo whose arms were the size of Lizzie; a guy whose tiny dog, Lupita, was hanging out in a sling around his stomach for the entire competition. And Geoff Esper, the reigning champion, who holds world records in eating donuts, pretzels, Hooters chicken wings, Spam, and a Danish sweet called Æbleskiver.

Lizzie: It was an engaging, if somewhat disorienting, eight minutes. At more than one point during the competition I was forced to stare at the ground for stability, like they tell you to do if you get dizzy during an IMAX movie. The competitors all used their hands to eat, holding each one-pound cardboard bowl of big berries, strawberry syrup, shortcake, and whipped cream close to their mouths so that the baby-pink mixture had to be carried only a short distance from bowl to mouth before the next handful went in, and then the next bowl. I thought I saw Esper gag at one point, but maybe it was all in my head.

At the competition’s kickoff we learned that the world record for strawberry-shortcake eating, held by Carmen Cincotti since 2018, was 22 pounds in eight minutes. Geoff Esper was Mattituck’s winner, but he didn’t break Cincotti’s record: He managed 18.25 pounds, which is still, I think, pretty indisputably an impressive number of pounds. He won $3,500.

Energized by the competitive spirit, we decided to walk across the highway again and back to the Jitney stop. When the bus was two minutes late, Kaitlyn started to frantically look up alternate routes home, saying, “What if we’re stuck here?” Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, I thought. Stuck in Mattituck. The Jitney came anyway, so it didn’t matter.

Our phones were dead. Kaitlyn fell asleep again. Every time I looked out the window, I swear we were passing Roslyn, New York, again.

Kaitlyn: As we wound through Queens, I was reminded of that old mantra “If Manhattan’s not for me, I don’t care; I’m for Manhattan.” With the Jitney, it’s the opposite: We’re not for the Jitney, but the Jitney is for us. As in, we’re not Jitney people, but we paid our fare and took a ride. They couldn’t keep us off Lexington Avenue! This is crucial to the dubious charm of New York: Even as the rents skyrocket and your friends skip town and the nights get hotter and the electricity bill becomes a punch in the teeth, you can still have breakfast at Tiffany’s, or whatever. You can look at almost anything you want.

Anyway, upon arriving home, I consulted the issue of Northforker that we’d only skimmed at our wine tasting. “For the event, the strawberries are not actually grown locally,” the article on the strawberry festival concedes, as it turns out, pretty early in its word count. I guess it’s fine as long as you’re up-front about it.

Lizzie: Someone tell that to the Jitney!

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