Prepare to wince. Because you are about to read the most privileged confession I’ll ever make. Apologies in advance, but I need you to know something: I fucking love the Hamptons. I just hate admitting it.
You know how when you ask someone from Harvard where they went to college, they invariably answer, “I went to college in Cambridge,” like they are being oh-so humble? Well, I do that about my summer vacation plans. When asked if we are going on any trips over the summer, I’ll answer yes. When pressed for specifics, I’ll say “Long Island.” If further pressed, I’ll cave and admit “Sag Harbor” (arguably the humblest of the haughty Hamptons) and hope no judgment ensues.
I feel like an enormous hypocrite going there. In fact, I feel enormous — period — there. (Other people’s) summer bods reach their peak perfection in the Hamptons, and they are expected to. In the cultural zeitgeist, the Hamptons represent image consciousness, extreme privilege, ostentation, and a huge disparity in the class system (Check out the Hampton Jitney — the Manhattan-Hampton shuttle — on a Friday afternoon or Monday mornings. It’s 90% domestic help on their way to cater to the privileged families who weekend there. On Monday mornings, you’ll even find nannies begrudgingly carrying the family pets back to the city). It’s everything I say I am disgusted by. And yet every summer I head back for more.
And so do many New York City professionals and families with means. They flock to this small haven on Long Island known for its beaches, quaint farmers markets, sceney outdoor restaurants (many summer-chic outposts of New York City hot spots), charity fundraisers, and “casual” barbecues where no one would dare wear shorts (unless they were designer, white, super short and paired with a $2,000 dollar flowing Hermes blouse). Trouble is, while I am somewhat privileged, I am also eminently practical, so this place does not jive with how I see myself.
Take Round Swamp Market. At one couples’ dinner last summer, my friend’s husband, in a fit of feigned machismo authority, told us he had instructed American Express to refuse any charges on his wife’s credit card emanating from the market because “a four-pack of chicken fingers shouldn’t cost $40 no matter how fucking fresh it is.”
For the most part, Round Swamp has no prices. The assumption, I guess, is that if you’re there, you can pay. So, the store is like Disneyland with landmines for naive food-lovers. The other day I picked up a small container of guacamole, another of salsa, a small bottle of margarita mix (no alcohol) and a package of brownies and discovered at check-out that it totaled $55. That’s a lobster dinner for 4 in Maine, with sides and dessert — and beer. Outrageous. Exorbitant costs aside (if you can afford to put them to the side), the prepared food there really is that delicious. But good luck scoring a chicken nugget after 2pm: Their homemade pies, breads, muffins, soups and unmistakable prepared meals are so crave-worthy, most everything sells out by early afternoon.
Everything is more expensive in the Hamptons, the pretention can be tangible, and the cost to rent is exorbitant. So why do I pay to play like an asshole?
First of all, there is a saying that has become more of a religion out there: “ROSÉ ALL DAY.” This is a temple I can pray in. The shit is everywhere. Granted, by summer’s end, it tastes like penicillin to me. (I can’t even look at it without my stomach churning until the following August.) But it is glorious for one scorching hot month a year — not too sweet, not too dry, and so inexplicably refreshing.
Also, the kids get to see grass. I know grass is available in many less-expensive and elitist locales, but the grass is around a heated pool and the pool is behind a house — 15 minutes from a beach, all within driving distance from New York City. In the City, you are cooped up in properties valued for their price per square foot and designed with every one of those feet in mind. So having a house with a backyard, rooms with space to spare and freedom to roam is phenomenal for kids and parents alike (They are a safe distance away from me, allowing me to breathe, read and practice my rosé religion with other Hampton revelers). This separation between my church and their free-to-roam state is good for all of us. We are not on top of each other all the time and can instead CHOOSE to spend time together. It’s positively bonding.
The kids activities on offer in the Hamptons are imaginative and endless: from themed block-building nights and kiddie drive-in movies at the Green School farm where the animals roam free, to sunset drum circles on the beach. There is fabulous childrens’ theater, nature preserves galore, free classical music concerts and the amazing Children’s Museum of the East End. Then there are the bays and beaches and opportunities to fish, water ski and kayak. Oh my.
There are pancake breakfasts sponsored by the local fire department and even a traveling carnival in Sag Harbor complete with cotton candy and creepy carnies who leave you questioning just how they enforce Megan’s Law for traveling carnival employees. (And lest we forget the questionably sourced stuffed animals with missing googly eyes that they give as prizes, and the impossibly dirty feet we all try to clean unsuccessfully before our children pass out come nighttime).
In addition to surfing, sailing and boating specialty camps and hidden amongst the most expensive, coddling day camps this side of the Mississippi, you can find the most down-to-earth camps in this least down-to-earth location. The parking attendant strums a ukulele while directing traffic at drop-off at my daughter’s decidedly hippy-dippy day camp, where you’ll hear and see shaggy-haired kids in tye-dye and flip flops singing and drumming the classics before their first elective, using the camp’s communal band equipment. My son goes to a farm camp where he cleans and grooms animals and collects eggs from the chickens every morning. I can barely get him to clean his room at home but here the little man is doing hard, farm labor (granted, at my expense). When I pick him up, he’s greedily slurping a green smoothie he made using watercress, lemon, celery and berries he picked from the farm’s garden. He insists I try it, and I feign enthusiasm (It tastes like a juice-cleanse.) Back home, I have to fight to get him to eat spinach, but here he liquefies it and drinks it up like a decadent milkshake.
My kids just eat differently out there. When we go to one of the bazillion amazing farmer’s markets there they choose vegetables I can’t pronounce, and we google how to cook them (that is, if I’m not running into celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli at the Friday Hayground farmer’s market, who disputed one farmer’s directions on how to cook a strange squash varietal and advised me on the sly to broil it instead).
We go to roadside fish shacks that could be in New England, and my kids meticulously strip the black turtlenecks off steamers like little clam condoms, before dunking them in drawn butter. (Granted, you’re paying about five times more in Montauk than you would in Maine for these delicious picture-perfect pleasures, and you are overlooking a highway rather than an ocean.) But it’s one of few do-it-yourself meals that keeps them this quiet or focused so it’s worth every penny.
I eat differently out there, too. Given the abundance of markets, the relative scarcity of delivery services and the glaring absence of dry goods in my pantry (I’m renting, after all), it’s easy to avoid processed foods and carbs, favoring fresh, simple meals made from ingredients plucked from earth or sea that morning. I lose 3–5 pounds every August between the fresh food and pressure to exercise, and despite the copious amounts of rosé. Eating is almost entirely social there. People have parties to celebrate the summer, the bounty — and each other. Words like “fabulous” are bandied about at these affairs, but the people, the homes, and the food really can be just that — fabulous.
With all this social stimulation, I find myself more 180 miles per hour than sleeping during my August vacation. Since I’m only renting for a month, I feel like I have to get my money’s worth from the absurdity it costs to rent a place out there. But there are just so many activities to choose from for kids and adults alike, it can turn an already obsessive-compulsive overachiever like me into a roséd zombie come Labor Day.
I do feel that the Hamptons, with all its fabulous frivolity and obsessive Page Six coverage is misunderstood. My friends don’t wrap convertibles around trees after a bender. My friends drive sensible SUV’s and consider bumming a cigarette from a fellow reveler at dinner a wild night out. In my Hamptons, families spend their weekends grilling out and hosting pool parties for fellow friends and families. There are lovely dinner parties and while we hit the occasional hot-spots for dinners, we are in bed by 10:30pm.
But Monday-Friday, when the breadwinners are back at work in New York City, the “family Hamptons” of the weekends morphs into something else. The moms form a hive of exercise and shopping and socializing and plan almost nightly dinners with and without kids at the restaurants du jour. You’d literally have to go out of your way to not be invited to a “Sip & Shop” (kind of like a “Sip & See” but with tables of designer merch on display instead of a wrinkly newborn). This is the culture in a land where little real culture exists. Sure, there are a few local theaters, but no one from New York City goes to the Hamptons see a show, and the movie theaters there are only for rainy days. Political talk is taboo, and since you see the same 10 people at the same 10 parties, you eventually run out of anything interesting to talk about. And so many of the women begin talking about each other. Myself included, I’m afraid, on occasion.
And yet by Labor Day weekend, just before our rental ends, I find myself looking at homes for sale online. I compare and contrast properties for hours and dream of how I could avoid my occupied kids for weekends and holidays all year long while they ran and frolicked and swam. And then I wonder if I am a total fucking hypocrite for wanting to come back — or even live part-time — in a place that both offends and delights in turn. A place so lavish, but with pleasures so simple.
Then comes the very real realization that, oh wait, we can’t afford to buy anyway — doh! And I am thus relieved of the pangs of my hypocrisy. So, I book some amazing plays and restaurants “back home” (Fall is the best time in New York City) and don’t plan — or get invited to — what is so awesomely termed the “re-entry dinner” in September for moms who summered in the Hamptons and need a PTSD kumbaya transition back to city life. At these dinners, the rosé turns into Sancerre, and the Hamptons-City cycle continues. And rundown but happy, I give my last cheek kiss, pack up our bags — and the leftover rosé that will go untouched for a year — and ready myself for the three-to-six hour hellish Labor Day drive home along with all the other summer poseurs.