Vronsky and I went to Sag Harbor this weekend for a quick mini break to cure the end-of-summer blues and it was the first time either of us had the pleasure of enjoying that part of Long Island. Vronsky and I usually high-tail it down to Figure Eight Island in North Carolina, where is family has a house, when we are craving sand and surf, and as you already know, I am a devotee of the Great Lakes, but Sag Harbor has its own unique pleasures and is easy to get to from NYC without the chaos and "cheese" factor of the Hamptons.
It has a nautical, austere, rocky-beach kind of beauty, and the air has this wonderful salty smell that only made me crave beer and then more salt, which I tried to cure with some delicious fresh sea food. And this is a different sort of sea smell than what I smelled in say, the Caribbean or when I am down in Palm Beach. It is something I have only experienced along the sea-scape of the northeast, be it Nantucket, Main or, now, Sag Harbor.
It is amazing how connected our sense of smell and taste are. In fact, "retronasal tasting," or tasting with your nose is of utmost importance. If you read Liz Thorpe's (Vice President of the amazing Murray's Cheese) incredibly charming and wildly informative The Cheese Chronicles, she spells out the relationship between taste and smell with particular regard to cheese. When you eat cheese (or any food for that matter), there are very specific phsyical sensations associated with taste: sweet, salty, sour/acidic, bitter...but the mouth is actually quite limited outside of those taste sensations. Most of the romance of food, Thorpe maintains, comes after it's been swallowed. You exhale and the breath rushes up the back of your nasal passages and out your nose, and suddenly there are a million sensory impressions, most of which have to do with smell: grass, hay, stone soil, leather, soap perfume, swimming pool, chalk, pencil eraser, on and on. Smell is so tremendously linked to memory, and it is the smell of the harbor that colored all the meals I ate while I was in Sag. I wanted to taste the sea, but really, I wanted to eat food that capture that some amalgam of feelings that come with smelling the sea.
What food best capture that for me? There was the incredible lobster bisque Vronsky ordered from B. Smith's, but it was my own steamed lobster with corn on the cob and sauteed vegetables that really tasted like sea to me. I am usually not a huge fan of steamed lobster, if only because I am an idiot and can never seem to get it out of the shell without making a huge mess and almost loosing a finger in the process. The same goes with crabs, but at least I can suck off the old bay in the process. However, with Vronsky there to lend a helping hand, I was able to suck out every last bit of succulent meat and enjoy that briney, salty, unique flavor of whole lobster that is impossible to enjoy in any other preparation, be it bisqued, fried, or on a roll (especially on a roll...all you can taste is mayonnaise!). And while I did not learn of any specific dish or culinary tradition that was unique to Sag Harbor, I certainly look forward to coming back to B. Smith's on another weekend hiatus, hungry for another taste of that crisp, salty air.